Tommy Emmanuel, middle age crisis, touristy stuff

When we met at the Esplanade to watch Tommy Emmanuel play, I learnt that C had a friend circle so extensive, it would fill up an entire row in the hall. I asked him if they were all rabid Tommy Emmanuel fans like he was. He replied dismissively saying, “None of us are fans, lah. We just here to have fun. He’s good but not ‘that’ good also.”

But I, on the other hand, thought he was quite good. Emmanuel played with no back-up band or metronome and used the entire body of his guitar to create both the music and the percussion to go with. It was electrifying to watch as he launched into dazzlingly fast arpeggios to go with speedy percussive rhythms. In the middle of his gig, he had an impromptu workshop where he showed how a novice could learn to play The Beatles and spoke about how he would want everyone to pick up a musical instrument and play because that’s the most positive change one could make in a life, an idea I vehemently disagree with having spent large chunks of my teens hanging out with terrible guitar players. After this little digression, he went back to shredding his fingers off and I was going to turn to C to thank him for introducing me to such a good musician when I found C turning to me and whispering, “Hey, we’re getting out of here. Do you want to go have some fun?”

“But isn’t this already fun?”, I said.

“No, this is getting boring now. Come with us. We’re getting late.”

“Can’t it wait after the gig? I’m guessing it’ll be over in less than an hour.”

“No, we’ll be late. Come fast”, he said.

I was angry at my concentration being snapped out of the gig. But I was also curious to know what these guys were up to. So, highly reluctantly, I joined them outside where once we’d assembled, we had to run to the metro to catch a train to Tanah Merah.

Inside the train, I asked C where we were going in such a hurry.

“Pulau Ubin”, he said, excitedly, “It’s an island in Singapore. We have to hurry because if we don’t, we’ll miss the last boat. We go there to camp on the beach all night.”

“But I have all my things in the hostel”, I said, “I can’t just leave it there.”

“It’s okay, lah. Only one night. Do you have anything important? You go back tomorrow.”

“What about food? We haven’t eaten anything.”

“Haha, we just hunt for something, lah”, he said mirthfully, with a pat on my back.

There were 25 people other than myself, with three girls from South Korea, two guys from Kenya, four American dudes, half a dozen Malaysian boys and girls, three Indonesians, a guy and a girl from Australia, two Indian boys, a girl from England and the two Singaporean friends of C that I had already met earlier that week. All of them studied at different Singaporean universities. Until I met this bunch, I had considered myself young but surrounded by college going kids talking about their espadrilles and fizzy hairstyles and Justin Biebers, I felt like an elder statesman with grey hair and arthritis watching his grandkids talk about stuff beyond his understanding. I was also on a different plane of consciousness altogether because most of them were already high on alcohol and I felt like a sober elder gent trying to keep up with their non-stop rickety rack.

C then justifiably got bored of my company and went over to go talk to the girls and I was left all alone to fend for myself. I’m ordinarily quite uptight and terrible at non-nerdy small talk but this crowd of people was so strange, unfamiliar and out of my league that I felt even more alienated and awkward than I would otherwise. I hated myself for ditching a perfectly good gig for some kind of impromptu Spring Break party with tweens. I thought, if I felt so out of my depth at the very outset, an entire night on a beach with these kids was only going to make me even more depressive and lonesome. So I ditched the group by getting off at the next station and took the train that went back to Raffles Place.

I walked down to Esplanade Bridge and Marina Bay to get over the mildly depressive blues I had been feeling. Here, Chinese tourists were faking pictures of themselves drinking water pouring from the mouth of the Merlion, the Singapore flyer was gleaming in the distance with tourists taking overpriced rides on its giant wheel, the Singapore River Cruise was floating daintily in the waters with the people inside flashing their cameras at the skyscraper ship of the Marina Bay Sands.

These scenes felt familiar and comforting and I felt, at that moment, that however much an “outsider” may try to “blend in” and have an “authentic” experience, it’s never possible to see a city one doesn’t belong to like the people who live there do, especially not in the short amount of time one is allowed to spend in a foreign city. Arguably, going with the kids to a part of Singapore a lot of people don’t travel to might have given me an insight into the lives of college going kids in the city but I doubt I would have learnt any more than what I already had from my conversations with C. I consoled myself with the thought that it would have largely been a long night of alcohol and partying where, knowing myself, I would have felt too awkward to get a word in edgewise.

So, to perhaps compensate for this aborted trip, I chose to be an ordinary tourist in Singapore for the next 3 days. I went to the Asian Civilizations Museum to have a look at the spectacularly organized ancient artifacts from all over Asia where I learnt more about Indian art than I did in Indian museums, I walked around the Botanical Gardens for a slice of peace and tranquility, I walked up and down the electronic malls at Sim Lim Square and Funan to shop for electronic gadgets, I visited the Peranakan Museum housed in an old, sprawling Peranakan house with two Chinese dudes from my hostel where the Singaporean guide who took us around was highly curious to know how what he was showing me compared to what I had seen in India, I fought vertigo and the humid heat to walk the 11 km trail in the MacRitchie reservoir over the canopy of the tropical rainforest to the mighty suspension bridge dangling hundreds of meters above the ground and of course, I wasted my money at the Raffles Hotel doing that much maligned touristy thing of having a sugary sweet Singapore Sling in its colonial garden on a warm afternoon.

The more you did in a capitalist construct like Singapore, the more you felt you had to do. And it was only a conversation with an Australian backpacker who was staying in the same dorm as I was and who had travelled on a bicycle all the way from Japan via Taiwan, Hong Kong, Vietnam, Laos etc. that I realised there were other places I wished to see and that if I wanted to do so, I had to get the hell out of Singapore. The next morning, I packed my bags and took a bus to the border at Johor Bahru to cross over to Malaysia. Although it’s undoubtedly a city made of and for money, I had a terrific time in Singapore. It wasn’t as cold and sterile as some travel literature led me to believe (I’m looking at you Paul Theroux) with a true cosmopolitan core that gave it diversity and life, a place I could easily go back when I needed some comfort and order.

Continue Reading

Back in Almora

I didn’t know what to do when I got off the jeep at the lower market area in Almora. I had left Dhaulachina with my head in a cloud without a plan and I had been so engrossed in the stories that the inebriated thug on the jeep from Dhaulachina had been telling me that I never thought about what to do on the way either. I was mulling about going back to my friend AJ’s house but my phone was dead and I couldn’t figure out how to reach his place. I asked around at the teashop where I was cooling my heels with sugary chai if they knew any good hotels in the town and a few hands pointed helpfully to a long staircase going up the opposing hillside.

It was when I huffed up that steep, seemingly neverending staircase that I realised what a terrible idea it was to have carried so many of the books I had bought in Mr. Arora’s shop in Dehradun along with me, books I hadn’t even had the time to open so far. Finally, after much toil, I reached the upper bazaar with its bustling markets and ornate wooden galleries. Here, I went into a cybercafe and hit indiamike.com, the travel portal with a message board that had been so helpful in getting me out of a spot before, hoping it would give me ideas on a place to stay.

“You’re on Indiamike?”, said a voice with a distinct European accent from behind me.

I turned around and saw a white dude with long hair, a red colored shirt with the mantra “Om” pasted all over and matching dark orange pyjamas. I said, “Yes, looking for a place to stay.”

“Oh”, he said, tentatively, then looked at my big rucksack and said, “Come with me.”

He took me up an alley next to the cyber café and into Bansal Hotel, a place that didn’t look a lot like a hotel from the outside but opened up to a reception and a spacious terrace upstairs with a cluster of rooms spread around its narrow corridors. I got a decent room with a bathroom for 250 Rs. and then dumped my rucksack inside, pulled up a chair on the terrace which delivered a fantastic view of the mountains beyond and began chatting with the dude who got me there over a plate of samosas and many cups of chai.

P was from the town of Brittany in France and had been traveling the world for 5 years. He had done his graduation in economics and left for a solo gap year round the world trip but so infatuated was hewith the world outside his home that he never went back home to look for a job or make a steady living. He rattled off the names of countries like they were friends he knew, Bolivia, Chile, Congo, Nigeria, Botswana, Vietnam, Mongolia, Taiwan etc. After his gap year money ran out, he began working in hostels, volunteering in farms and schools, jobbing as a dish-washer in restaurants etc. to fund his travels.

This was his second trip to India and it was one of the handful of countries that he looked forward to settle in. When I asked why, he said, “Because India is good. People like you more, they take you to their homes and help you when you’re in trouble. In other countries, it’s more about the money but India is all about the soul. I don’t have to work here because it’s so cheap and it’s cheap because people are more shanti and help each other. They don’t make things stupidly expensive.”

P felt the world was going down a deep, dark hole of materialism and apathy. “I only make the money I need”, he said, “I have no house, no investment, nothing. To survive in this world and be a little free, you need money. But I only work for what I need. Otherwise, we’re just being stupid. We destroy the world, you know. In France, government gives me little bit of money if I don’t have a job. But that only makes people lazy. I ask you, why do you need a job? Because we have created an atmosphere where without a job, they tell you that you cannot survive. Which is why I love India where people work their land and live within what they have. They’re poor but they’re content, even the poorest. It’s there for everyone to see. In the developed world, they hide it. You know how old the idea of money is? 300 years. Before that they had no money. They only worked for food. Which is why those old paintings look more beautiful. We live in an ugly world because without money it cannot exist and every day it’s getting uglier. The only way this world can become more beautiful is for the whole world to say, ‘Hey, I don’t need your money. So get lost.’ But that’s never going to happen.”

All this anarchic banter was making me hungry for something more filling than samosas. So we went to a non-descript hole-in-the-wall place which P professed to have the best food in all of Almora. “Just don’t eat the pizza and you will be ok”, he said laconically. P appeared to be on first name terms with everyone who worked there. The staff were immensely happy to see him and knew exactly what he wanted and how he wanted it, which was a cheese naan with dal fry made very spicy. “They always make it less spicy when they see my face but it will be stupid if I come to India and not have spicy, no?”, he said.

All this familiarity was making me wonder how long he had spent in Almora because it appeared to have been a lifetime. “Only two days,” he said with a laugh, “I know these guys because yesterday I went into the kitchen and made some dal myself. They liked it very much! Tomorrow I go to the Sun Temple and maybe find another place to stay which is more shanti. You want to go to Sun Temple with me?”

So we went to the Sun Temple the next day.

Continue Reading

The conversations with the monk from Yuksom continue as we walk to the Dubdi monastery

P1100937

As we climbed up the steep flight of stairs to the Dubdi gompa, our path became so thickly enveloped by fog that we could hardly see the steps ahead of us. I asked the monk if he ever feels lonely having lived a life of abstinence.

“I do,” he said, “But this is the path I’ve chosen. It’s a conscious choice too. Many of the people I studied with never became a monk. They married and lived a happy life. The worst are those who became a monk and began making money. At least the ones who left were honest.

“Because why does a monk need money? The reason you give yourself up to God is so that you give up all your material desires. My guru was a very pure human being. He wouldn’t even touch meat and would only eat what was offered to him. I’m his only disciple who seeks to follow that path.

“Once after meeting a friend who had come to visit with his wife, I told my guru that I wanted to live a normal life with a wife and some children. My guru told me, okay, live that life, but remember that you’re committing a grave sin. Tell me, what’s the biggest sin that you could commit in the world? I told him, sex? He said no. Disrespecting God? Again, no. Killing someone? No. Not saying your prayers sincerely? No. The biggest sin you could commit is money because that makes you do all of those things.

“It struck a deep chord. And then I began thinking, if I marry and have children, I’ll need to make money to help them survive. And how do you make money without negatively impacting the world around you? Nowadays, every kid has a phone. If my son goes to school, he will also want a phone. So I have to make decent money to afford it. Which means I would have to work for a company that makes a lot of money. Every company that makes a lot of money does evil in the world, in the form of corruption, cutting down forests, poisoning rivers, working with evil regimes. So how can I make any money without being wilfully part of that evil? Where do you begin doing evil and when does it end?

“So I decided I won’t have a family. I will live my life the way my guru lead his life. At least then, my conscience will be clear. It’s not been easy and people make fun of me all the time. This young lama I am about to meet in Dubdi is a very good boy and I’m trying to guide him along the right path. People make fun of me all the time but I’m used to it now. When you live the way I do, you also realize how much kindness and goodness there is in this world. Without that, I wouldn’t be alive today.”

Then I pointed out that everything he was telling me on this mossy stairway to the monastery contradicted what he told me earlier about the power of China, ruthlessness etc.

“Ah, but that’s because the world is doomed. What I’m doing requires a great deal of sacrifice and the vast majority of the world is neither capable of nor inclined towards it. Over the past many centuries, we have been consumed by greed and it’s only accelerating. Even the monks who have been trained in abstinence and compassion like I have don’t follow those principles. So what hope is there for the world at large?

“But if you have to survive in a greedy world, you have to be greedy yourself. You either have to follow the way of the world, which is that of a ruthless race for survival, or you follow mine. If you follow a middle way, like the Dalai Lama suggests, you will be crushed. So, say the world is going to end in the next 10 minutes, you might as well live well for those 10 minutes. You and I are both going to perish anyway. The only difference is I can die peacefully with a clean conscience while if you are a highly successful businessman in China, you don’t have to worry about conscience. It’s the people in between who are going to suffer. Which is why I don’t preach my way to anybody because it gives me peace. I only talk a lot hahaha.”

As if to confirm the truth of his words, we were showered with a thunderstorm. My slippers were ill-equipped to deal with the wet, cobbled stones on the trail and every time I stepped on a mossy section or one of the million leaves ornamenting our way, I slipped clumsily and fell. At one such embarrassing fall, two giggling girls from a village below passed by and one of them pointed at me, laughed and said, “You walk like a drunken man.” The monk howled with laughter too and said, “If you walk like that, no woman would marry you hahaha.” “Then I could be like you”, I said, with a tinge of anger in my voice. The monk laughed again and said, “No, no, don’t be like me. If you walk well, you can marry that girl also and start a family in Sikkim.”

He then gave me a crash course on walking in the wet mountains by demonstrating the many different ways to skip across the trail. The trick, he said, was to avoid any stones or foliage and hop between the earthy sections holding the stones together. And thus productively occupied with this elaborate tutorial, we reached the lonely stupas marking the way to Dubdi. It was an ethereal atmosphere, all mist and fog, scenes straight out of Throne of Blood, Kurosawa’s brutal, misty adaptation of Macbeth. For a few moments there, I became genuinely excited by the idea of the monk’s life. Would I be able to live the way he lived? I was halfway there anyway, an eternal nomad roaming from place to place without a home to settle down. I had no wife or children to care for. I didn’t have a ton of friends either. The only material element I was clinging onto was money.

I began thinking of ways one could give up money, live the monastic life and roam infinitely. And then, like a flash, I got reminded of the beginning of the day when I exchanged my crummy dwelling in the basement of the hotel for a more plush, comfortable one. If I couldn’t live in a cheap hotel room, what chance did I have in the dharamsalas and monasteries of the world? I needed money as critically as I needed air and water.

P1100928

I was exhausted by the time we reached Dubdi. The late-night party of the previous night and the resulting sleeplessness made me dizzy and drowsy. One of the novice monks at the monastery cheerfully invited us into his room at the back of the monastery where we were treated to a bucketful of butter tea. When it stopped raining, the monk, the novice and I stepped out to sit on one of the benches as the mist wrapped around us. The ancient monastery had now assumed a ghostly sight resembling an apparition from centuries ago. While the two were chatting away in their native tongues, I passed out.

I wouldn’t wake up until the evening when an old German man shook me wildly to check if I was still alive. “Hey, are you okay? Do you need help?”, said the ancient, bearded face with a handycam hung across the neck. “Yeah,” I said, “What time is it?” “It’s 5 in the evening”, his wife said anxiously, “We’ve been here for 2 hours and you’ve been lying there all the time. We wondered if you were sick. Do you need any help? Where do you stay?”

As it turned out, we were staying in the same hotel. So off we went down to the Yak Café in the more material world of Yuksom to hang out over tongbas and conversation.

Continue Reading

Rishikesh #5 – The Brenda problem

This is a continuation of my Rishikesh series with stories cobbled together from my trip there in April 2009. Do check out #1, #2, #3 and #4.

It was 11 in the night and Brenda, the big German girl we met in post #2 was sick. She was slouched over at the reception surrounded by everybody who worked there (and didn’t). The guest house people had thrown their hands up, made her write a note absolving them of any responsibility or wrongdoing and asked her to pack her bags and go someplace else.

She looked decidedly uneasy and was running a fever. Carol and Jessica pleaded with the people at the reception to get a doctor in but after a casual discussion where they counted all the doctors they knew in Rishikesh, they were highly doubtful if anyone would bother coming over at that time of the night for a fever and stomach upset. And since Brenda had already checked out and signed those forms, they said she ought to go look for help right away.

Everyone seemed to be sure that there were 24 hour clinics in the vicinity but no one knew where they were. Swarg Ashram at 11 p.m. at night in 2009 was one of the most peaceful places on earth because its denizens slept early. So there was little hope of finding a taxi or autorickshaw in that remote corner of Swargashram, where even on a busy day, one had to walk 20 minutes to Ram Jhula for any hope of transport. Both Jessica and Carol looked worried because Brenda had stooped over crying.

Ashok, the rude reception guy, wasn’t too happy with the slow pace at which things were moving along. He called the watchman and ordered him to escort Brenda out so he could go back to his room and get some sleep. Jessica and Carol ran ahead and formed a human barrier between the watchman and Brenda and said they wouldn’t let him evict her until she was seen by a doctor. Jasbir then poked his nose in by volunteering to accompany Brenda to the health center. This suggestion was decidedly rejected by Jessica who never liked Jasbir and thought he was a bit of a creep (he was). She said she would go along with Carol and Matt and take Brenda to the hospital. Ashok just laughed at this suggestion and told her calmly that if that’s what they wanted to do then they would have to write and sign the same note that Brenda had to and then pack their bags and look for another place to live because foreigners had special rules in the guest house.

Meanwhile, Brenda’s condition began worsening. She went up to the tiny open drain bordering the  building walls and threw up. Moments later, she could barely get her eyes open and was so anxious, she had a hard time breathing. One of Ashok’s ill-paid stooges then recalled that he had once been to a medical facility 2-3 kms away when his mother had become very sick in the middle of the night. Jasbir went up to Ashok and told him that he would take her if he sent this guy along with him to show the way. Ashok happily agreed and ordered Deepu (for that was the ill-paid stooge’s name) to do the job. Jasbir then looked at me and said, “Tum bhi aao hamare saath. Bahut boriyat hogi raaste mein.” (You come with me. I’ll get bored on the way.”)

I began cursing myself for a). making friends with Jasbir and b). venturing out of my room where I had been happily turning the pages on Terry Patchett’s Hogfather. I wanted to be an asshole and tell Jasbir, Brenda and the others that no, I would rather go back to my room and continue with my book, thank you, but I just didn’t have the nerve. Jessica pleaded with Matt and I to go along like it was her life and not Brenda’s which depended on our dark hike to the hospital. Ashok made a concession for Matt and allowed him to join the group without any repercussions or formalities.

After a slow crawl down the dark unlit alleys of Swargashram, Brenda couldn’t walk anymore. She was quite a big girl. Matt was about 6 foot 2 inches tall and Brenda was bigger than he was. Improvisation was in order and Jasbir, perhaps for the first time ever, felt happy that Matt was in his vicinity. Matt and I took the shoulders while Jasbir and Deepu took the legs. We huffed it for a few metres, put her down, caught our breaths and came to the conclusion that it was a very bad idea. We looked around for a vehicle to take us to the clinic at Ram Jhula but couldn’t find any. Deepu ran across the bridge to see if he could find a taxi there, again to no avail.

So we had no option but to walk. After an arduous struggle for an hour where we proceeded at the pace Brenda was able to amble, we entered what appeared to be a dark, jungly wilderness and the only lights illuminating our path were Matt’s head-torch and faint trickles of moonlight from a sliver of a crescent. Jasbir looked suspiciously at Deepu and asked him if he was sure we were going to the right place. Deepu wasn’t sure. He mumbled something about having come across a dark forest at 2 a.m. and getting lost before “Bholenath ki krupa se woh aspatal hamare nazar mein aa gaya. Kisko pata woh sahi mein hain ki nahin?” (“Thanks to Lord Shiva’s grace, we miraculously found the clinic in front of us. Who knows whether it really exists or no?”)

All of us were getting exhausted with this ordeal but we had come too far to give up. Every once in a while, Brenda would begin crying and apologizing profusely for putting us through this trouble and Jasbir would console her. We couldn’t imagine what she was feeling when we ourselves felt so hopeless. Matt made her sit down under a tree in the darkness while Deepu and I stole his head-torch and went looking for any signs of this elusive clinic. Deepu kept muttering a mantra under his breath seeking divine providence to get us out of this pickle. And sure enough, after 5 minutes of wild walking, there it was, in the distance, its tube-lights flickering in the wilderness like the proverbial lights at the end of a tunnel making some of us sceptics momentarily believe in the existence of a higher being.

The clinic had a stretcher which helped us carry Brenda over. It was serviced by one doctor and two female attendants. It was a small place with one room for the doctor and a partitioned waiting area. There was another room whose walls were cob-webbed and mouldy where a couple of unloved cots lingered on the edge for the unfortunate patient or two that might show up in the middle of the night. The doctor, after examining Brenda thoroughly, said it was nothing serious, just a case of food poisoning but it would be better if she stayed over for the night.

The clinic didn’t look like a great place to consign Brenda to her fate. But we didn’t want to lug her back either. We asked the doctor if we could stay over and take her to a hotel in the morning. The doctor just shrugged lackadaisically and said the choice was ours.

Jasbir then valiantly offered to spend the night, a gesture which drew a sarcastic snicker from Matt. He said he would stay over too in a tone which seemed to suggest he didn’t have any faith in Jasbir’s offer. Then Jasbir, who was half a foot shorter, grabbed Matt’s collar and said with all the venom he could conjure, “Why? You don’t trust me?” Matt gently pushed him away and said, “Leave it be, mate. You don’t want to get hurt.” This left Jasbir fuming but he wisely decided not to push the issue. He looked at me and said, “Chalte hain waapas. Hamari bas ki baat nahin hai. Goron ko lagta hai ki saare Indian chor hai. Ye jaanta nahin hai ki main chahoon toh paanch minute mein iski haddiyan tudwa sakta hoon. Dilli mein hota toh shaayad toot bhi gaye hote ab tak. ” (Let’s go. This is not our concern anymore. These white people think all Indians are thieves. If I wish, I could have his bones broken in 5 minutes. If he was in Delhi, they might even be broken by now.)

Matt let me borrow his head-torch because we didn’t have anything else to light our way back and we walked in the darkness to the ashram. Jessica was relieved to know that Matt was staying over with Brenda at the clinic. It was 3 a.m. in the morning and I went swiftly back to my room and fell asleep.

In 20 minutes, just as my mind was drifting into deep slumber, I heard loud knocks on my door. I pinched myself to make sure it wasn’t a nightmare but the knocking was incessant and frantic. I was afraid something might have happened to our friends at the clinic. I opened the door to see Jasbir’s petrified face shedding buckets of sweat staring back at me. This looked ominous and I had a faint feeling of dread coming over me.

“What happened? Sab theek hai?”, I asked. (Is everything alright?)

He took me down to a corner and began whispering rapidly.

“Bhai, tera pata nahi par mujhe toh bahut darr lag raha hai. Woh Matt sahi insaan nahi hai. Raat ko kuch kar baitha toh police humein andar daalegi. In goron ko jaanta nahi hai tu, bahut smart log hai. Unhe kuch nahi hoga, hum jaayenge andar”. (Dude, I don’t know about you but I am feeling very scared. Matt is not a good person. If anything happens at night, the police are going to lock us up. You don’t know these white people, they’re very smart. Nothing will ever happen to them and we’ll get locked up for their crimes.)

These panic-stricken anxieties coming from a man who had built his entire character on Dilli swag and brag was quite a shock. I assured him that Matt wasn’t capable of hurting a fly but my assurances were in vain. For the next two days, Jasbir couldn’t sleep a wink and didn’t come to hang out with us because he didn’t want to be seen around Matt. He was certain he was going to jail. He would knock at my door at 3 a.m. every night to spoil my sleep and vent his anxieties till the wee hours of the morning. I would tell him Brenda was perfectly fine and that Matt made sure she found a decent hotel but he just wouldn’t believe me.

So it was a real pleasure for the two of us to find Brenda lounging at the Devraj Coffee Corner one afternoon and see with our own eyes that she was safe. Jasbir got the entire story from her and tallied every detail to what he had heard from me to make sure the pieces fit perfectly. She was extremely thankful for our help and treated us to coffee and lunch.

After lunch, I went straight to my room, locked the door and slept like I seldom slept before.

Continue Reading

Shillong – Intro, Getting There, Cafe Shillong

Until the end of October, 2017 was a lean travel year by the standards of every other year I’ve had post-2009. Aside from a month in Tamil Nadu, a couple of weeks in Gujarat, a trip to Kolkata for my brother’s wedding, most of it was spent consolidating and editing the ton of pictures I had taken over 8 years, painstakingly organizing all my travel notes and replenishing my ever diminishing bank balance by saving up. I also had to deal with travel fatigue, saturation and burn out and my middle-aged body (I’m in my mid-30s) ached for rest after years of bumpy rides, bad food and poor sleep.

So the only reasons I went to Shillong was because NH7 was happening, Steve Vai was playing, some of my closest friends were going and it would be a short trip that I was hoping to finish in a couple of weeks to resume a monotonous routine in Mumbai. One of my favourite guitar players Uli Jon Roth was scheduled to play in Mumbai in mid-November and I was planning to make it back to the city by then. I certainly did not believe that I had another rough, months-long, largely off-beat exploratory journey left in me for the time being.

But as it turned out, Uli cancelled his tour and I am yet to return to Mumbai as I write this. The 3 hour flight to Guwahati turned into a couple of weeks in the Khasi Hills, a month in Mizoram, a month in Tripura, a couple of weeks in Assam, another month in West Bengal, then Orissa and Andhra Pradesh. So I thought I should recount this journey while it’s still fresh in my memory along with my posts about my travels from other years.

IMG_5610-2

The flight to Guwahati might have been painless but getting to Shillong from the airport was a puzzle we had to solve at the airport. A had booked an Ola cab before we left Mumbai to do the transit to Shillong but when we reached the airport, the driver refused to pick us up and canceled our booking. We had arrived at 8.30 p.m., perhaps not too late for a city like Mumbai but the counters for the cabs to Shillong at the airport had shut down. There were a few cab drivers waiting outside, all approaching us with varying levels of disinterest until one gentleman agreed to ferry us to the city for 800 Rs.

I’m continually amazed at how disorienting it feels when you go from Mumbai to any other city in India. While Mumbai would have been bustling at 9.30 p.m., making you curse the traffic snarls you might have to negotiate even at late-night hours on a holiday, Guwahati looked absolutely deserted. The drive from the airport to the city was a breeze through empty roads and haunted streets. Once we reached Guwahati, our driver’s eagle eye caught a Shillong registered vehicle and in a couple of hours, after a quick meal and a swift ride through the foggy hills, we were in Shillong.

We had booked our hotel in Shillong over a month in advance and it’s a good thing we did because the NH7 clientele appeared to have booked out all accommodation in the city and its tentacled suburbs. The hotel we chose was The Best Holiday Inn which, if you have a budget of over 2.5k INR, I highly recommend. It’s in the quietest of lanes in the Lachumiere area of Upper Shillong and was run with pinpoint efficiency. The room, where R, S and myself were staying was on a higher floor with a good view of All Saints Church and Lower Shillong and was quite spacious even for the 3 of us.

The next morning, we began our Shillong explorations with a gentle amble 2 kilometers down to one of Shillong’s photogenically kitschy park, Ward’s lake. I had been to Ward’s Lake on my first trip to Shillong in 2010 and I’m pleased to report that nothing has changed. It’s fairly clean and well landscaped and is a peaceful place to amble about for an hour or two. Hell, if you can find a seat on one of the benches in the shade, you can plonk yourself here for hours reading a book.

But we didn’t have such luxury of time because there was shopping to do, food to eat and a gig to attend. The Police Bazar area is the prime shopping street in Shillong but R had a hard time finding a decent windcheater for himself. It was a bit weird because if there was one place you would imagine would have good windcheaters for sale, it should have been the capital of the wettest region in the world. After much enquiry and investigation, he found a decent piece at an amiable store run by a man from Mumbai.

Ever since I mentioned the fact that Café Shillong, one of Shillong’s best cafes, did great coffee and awesome steaks, S’s paranoia had kicked in. He had been agonizing over the idea that if it was indeed as good as I claimed it was, there would be a veritable stampede of starving people who would be queuing up outside its doors from the wee hours of the morning to finish off all the food they had in a matter of minutes. So ingrained was this fear in his head that as we were making our way to the café, he laboured at length to convince us not to go because he was certain the food must have run out by the time we got there.

To put it mildly, his fears were overstated. It was entirely empty of people and we had a free choice of tables to occupy. S ordered their signature Pork Spare Ribs, which judging by his orgasmic expressions, must have been quite delicious. I ordered the Smoked pork bastenga, a sour khasi curry with bamboo shoots served with rice, which was a bit too tangy for my taste but had enough texture to make me not regret the choice. I did wish I had ordered a serving of S’s PSR after taking a bite though. R, being vegetarian, made do with a vegetarian burger which he assured us was fantastic. A joined us a little later and ordered a sandwich which also appeared to be fairly satisfactory. The cappuccino (light on the coffee heavy on the milk) was strictly okay and looked like it needed another espresso shot to make it taste more like coffee. Caveats aside, if you’re in Shillong and aren’t on a shoestring budget, this little café in Laitumkhrah is likely to serve you well.

This gastronomic excursion meant we were late to catch the shuttle bus to the venue. I was wondering whether to skip day 1 altogether because very few of the bands lined up played the sort of music I like listening to. But since we had already paid for the tickets, we made a rush to the central bus stand where the shuttle buses operated from. An NH7 shuttle bus rolled past as we hurried into the bus stand desperately hoping we hadn’t missed the last bus out.

Continue Reading