Kuala Lumpur – Vicky and the Russians

After the mini heartbreak of the previous night, I suffered the blues for a couple of days and didn’t feel like doing a lot or going anywhere. I felt hollowed out knowing that I might have missed a glorious opportunity to initiate a real relationship with another person. Thankfully, the arrival of Natasha, Mikhail, Alex and Vicky, a group of three super tall Russians and a small Indian guy helped me get over the blues. The hostel, which until then had worn a dull, sedate, well-mannered look, instantly turned into party central and the Russians rounded up everyone who stayed there to form a big group to invade the most raucous pubs on Jalan Alor. We hopped from pub to pub not because they were particularly different to each other but because it was more fun to mingle with a different crowd and vicariously indulge our ADDs. The ample socializing and guzzling of alcohol drained away my sorrow and I felt happy and cheerful again.

Alex was the most boisterous of the lot with a seemingly bottomless capacity to consume alcohol. He had a particular affinity to Chinese girls and would flirt with over a dozen of them before taking one back to the hostel to spend a night with. Natasha and Mikhail weren’t far behind in their inebriative enthusiasm and would burst into atonal versions of popular English and Russian pop songs. Vicky would sit in a corner, smiling coyly, nursing a glass of Coca Cola, keeping largely to himself.

At what must have been the 132nd pub we hit that night, I went up to Vicky to learn what he was doing with these guys because his reserved, reticent, teetotaller self didn’t fit with the loud, noisy Russian group he was hanging out with. We broke the ice like any two solo Indian backpackers do when they meet on the road. First, a look of surprise that says “what the hell are you doing here?”, then wondering aloud how great it was to see another of this rare species on the road and then finally, getting to an actual conversation.

Vicky had been backpacking across South East Asia for many months. One evening, he met the Russians in a hostel in Ho Chi Minh City where he heard of their plans to set up a travel agency in the beach hub of Nha Trang to draw Russian tourists. Vicky loved Vietnam and thought it was a great opportunity to settle down and make some money. His brother ran a travel agency in Jaipur and when he offered to ferry Indian tourists over to Vietnam for custom-made/package tours, the Russians lapped it up happily and made him a partner in the company.

They were in Malaysia not just for a vacation but also to renew their visas. They were working in Vietnam with their tourist visas using a local Vietnamese family as a front. Once they returned to the country with a 6 month visa, they would neither have to nor be able to move out. But Vicky wasn’t complaining. He loved everything about Vietnam, the people, the food, the beaches. He was a vegetarian as well and while he didn’t find it easy to get pure vegetarian/Indian food, it wasn’t as difficult to adjust to after the time he spent backpacking in China and Europe.

Both Vicky and I were happy to have someone to talk to, someone who would get the many cultural similarities between Malay and Indian cultures. Vicky wistfully wished he loved Malaysia as much as he did Vietnam because the vegetarian food in Malaysia was a lot more palatable to his taste than what he was forced to get used to in Vietnam. He missed the dosas, the rotis and the dal-chawal-sabzi. But Vietnam offered many other pleasures, most prominently a girl he liked with whom he wished to settle down forever on one of the country’s numerous beach towns.

“Why didn’t you bring your girlfriend?”, I asked.

“Because she hates to travel”, he said, mournfully.

“As a traveller yourself, wouldn’t it be frustrating to live with someone who doesn’t like to do what you love to do?”

“My traveling days are over”, he said, “Now I just want to sit on a beach with my wife and relax.”

“But you aren’t married yet, no?”

“But we will be soon. I have no doubt about it. Just last month, I gifted her an iphone. She was really happy.”

Vicky and the Russians were flying to the island of Langkawi in a couple of days. He insisted I tag along and found me dirt cheap 100 RM air tickets on the same flight they were taking. I had no idea or plan about where I was going to go after KL, so I happily bought the ticket. While the Russians’ hectic party-hopping style wasn’t my cup of cappuccino, Vicky was good company to have for a few days.

The next evening, the hostel was so full that two Australian dudes who had exhaustedly sauntered in had to crash in the common area. But since the Russians were around, the last thing anybody was doing was crashing. The Australians, the Russians, a Japanese girl, two French girls and a big Singaporean group had joined hands to invade the pubs again. It was like lighting fire to a room full of oxygen.

The night was long. We hit a pub where a competitive beer pong game was on. I was absolutely pathetic at this idiotic game and suffered a humiliating loss in the very first round to a Singaporean girl. Vicky nursed his glass of coca cola sitting on a sofa in a corner while I dejectedly watched the proceedings sitting by his side gulping down a long glass of Long Island Iced Tea. Alex and one of the Australian dudes joined us a bit later.

Alex looked out of sorts. It wasn’t his day so far because none of the girls were paying any attention to him that evening. So he began throwing barbs at Vicky and I.

“Ah, Vicky, you found yourself an Indian friend eh?”, he said, smirking sarcastically at the two of us.

“Yeah, he’s also coming to Langkawi.”

“So you are boyfriends now?”

“No”, I said, angrily.

Alex ignored my feeble response completely. He turned to Vicky and said, ‘You know, you should get yourself one of these girls and take them to Langkawi. It’ll be good for you.”

I said, “I thought Vicky already had a girlfriend.”

“Vicky? Hahahaha. He doesn’t have a girlfriend. Since when do you have a girlfriend, man?”

Vicky looked at me with a fiery expression on his face suggesting, “Why the fuck did you have to bring that up?”

Then he turned to Alex and said, “I was telling him about Cao. About the iphone.”

“Yes, you gave her an iphone. But she’s not your girlfriend. I tell you, you should pick up one of these girls…”, said Alex.

“I think he misunderstood. I didn’t tell him she was my girlfriend. Just that I gave her an iphone. He must have thought that meant she was my girlfriend. Indians have weird ideas about these things.”

“You’ve got to be fucking kidding me”, I said, and left the place shaking my head to mingle with the beer pong crowd. I don’t have a clear memory of what happened later that night because we were all getting ingloriously zonked. Some Malay friends of the Singaporean girls had joined in and after the pub closed at 1 am, we went over to an after party to drink even more. So inebriated was I that when I opened my eyes the next afternoon, I found myself slumped over a beanbag in the common area of our hostel with no idea of how I got there. Alex and Natasha had sprawled over each other in a corner. Mikhail had passed out in his dorm room. The only person fresh, awake and looking spectacularly angry was Vicky. As soon as he saw that I was awake, he came over to me and said, “You idiot! We had to catch a flight 4 hours ago!”

“Hey, calm down”, I said, “What flight?”

“The flight to Langkawi that you booked two days ago.”

“Holy shit! I have no memory of what happened last night.”

“You don’t want to know.”

“No, tell me. What happened?”

“You got wasted and went off to sleep while we were partying in the Malay guy’s house. But that’s okay. At least you didn’t do anything nasty. Alex was frightening all the Singaporean girls because he was really desperate. They ran away and he got into a bad fight with the Malay guys. Mikhail tried to help him and broke a window in the guy’s house with his fist after he banged on it too hard thinking it was a wall. Natasha knocked herself out and left a trail of vomit all the way back to the hostel. After you guys got knocked out, I hailed a taxi and the Malay guys, who were very pissed off, were kind enough to help you guys into a cab. You were blabbering some nonsense about some girl. Aren’t you glad I was sober? Aren’t you? I saved your ass, you fucker! You idiots might have been rotting in a Malay jail right now!”

The hostel was running full that day and the staff weren’t willing to entertain any of us any longer. So we were stranded in KL without a bed or a place to go.

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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 – Conversations

To learn why people hated this city so much, I got in touch with Sara, the Malay girl I got acquainted with in Melaka. We met at the food court of the Pavilion Mall in Bukit Bintang, a mall that looked so big and expensive, it could have been a city in itself. I ordered a laksa and she got herself a teh tarik and we talked about Kuala Lumpur.

“You may not like to hear me say this but I’m liking your city a lot”, I said.

“That’s okay”, she said with a dismissive wave of the hand, “All tourists like the city. It’s an easy place to like for 2-3 days.”

“I met this dude yesterday who hated it.”

“Was he a white person? White people don’t like this city.”

“Yeah, an American. He lives in Thailand with his wife.”

“Those are the worst. He must have come here for a visa run. These people think all of Asean is one big country and they have a right to roam around wherever they want without respecting rules.”

“I thought you would agree with him! He hates it because of the crowds and the pollution and all that.”

“Which city doesn’t have crowds and pollution? I’ve been to New York and Paris and KL is a lot cleaner and easier to live in than both of them.”

“But I thought you didn’t like this city.”

“I don’t like it for very different reasons. It’s the city I grew up in and I don’t like how we’ve destroyed the old culture to build these ugly new malls and high rises.”

“Yet, here we are, meeting in a mall.”

“That’s because I work here. If you’d come on a holiday, we would have met in Kampong Baru, where you find the best food in Kuala Lumpur.”

“But don’t you think the fact that you’re earning a living through the existence of this ugly capitalist building means it has done some good to your city?”

“I’m working here because I have to. I don’t have a choice if I want to live independently. But if this place didn’t exist, there might have been a street food market where I would have found a job. Maybe I would have been happier.”

“What’s stopping you from finding work in one of the street food markets in the city?”

“Because I have bills to pay and there’s no money in street food. This job is much easier to do. I just sit around all day and go home and get paid for it. It’s just not as satisfying as making food for people. I don’t like this city because it doesn’t have a soul anymore. It’s just become this ugly mass of buildings everywhere. When I grew up, the city used to be much greener but now you won’t be able to spot a single tree in central KL.”

“But all cities change, don’t they? I grew up in Mumbai and the city that I saw growing up is completely different from the city that exists today.”

“Do you like Mumbai?”

“I don’t mind it. That’s where my home is. So I don’t have a choice I guess.”

“You don’t like your city. If you did, you would be living there. Not traveling without a job all the time.”

“That’s true. And I probably don’t like it for the same reasons you don’t. It’s become more crowded, more mechanical and a lot busier over the years. Most of my friends live in Mumbai but it’s impossible to see them because they’re always so busy with work. But, on the other hand, lots of people travel. That doesn’t mean they hate the cities they come from.”

“Well, if I had the money to travel for many years, I’ll be very happy never to see KL again. The people who like the places they come from go on vacations. They don’t travel for years to find another place to be happy in. If you meet that American guy again, ask him what he likes better, Thailand or the city he lived in before. I’m willing to bet he’ll say Thailand.”

“Well, he found a wife and a job in Thailand. He has a reason to be happier there.”

“You can also find a wife in Thailand if you try like he did.”

“The last thing I need in my life is a wife.”

“Yeah because she’ll tell you to get a job and live your life properly instead of roaming around.”

“I’m going to pretend I didn’t hear you say that. Any tips on things to do in KL?”

“Yes. Don’t go to Genting Highlands. Don’t go to Batu Caves. Unless you want to mingle with busloads of tourists from your country.”

“That’s good advice.”

“If you hang around till Saturday, I could take you to the street food market at Kampong Baru.”

“Sounds like a plan.”

The Kampung Baru street market was right behind KL’s most recognizable icon, the gigantic Petronas Towers and was the oldest part of the city where a glimpse or two of the traditional timbered architecture could still be seen. Sara was highly sceptical that anything here would last.

“You’re lucky to come here now when these old buildings are still around”, she said, “In a few years, they’ll all be gone.”

We walked around, got ourselves some rojak, some nasi lemak, a few glasses of Teh Tarik, endless sticks of satay. “The satay here is good”, I said, “but the satay I had in Melaka in the restaurant we met was a lot more flavourful and delicious. What do you think?”

“Kuala Lumpur is the worst place in Malaysia for local food,” she said, “If you want to taste great Malay cuisine, you have to leave this city and go to Ipoh and Penang. But by KL standards, this is the best and the most authentic food you get.”

Then she took me to Pisco Bar, a hip new bar she loved to visit on weekends. It was a cool place, a mix of the classy and the chic, walls decorated with black and white photographs. A raunchy band lit up the stage at one end belting out 80s pop hits. Some of Sara’s friends joined in and we all had much fun, laughter and conversation.

At around midnight, Sara wanted to go back home and since her house was on the way to my hostel, I said I would drop her. We were both somewhat inebriated and Sara went on about how easy it was to connect with people if we tried. After all, we had barely known each other until I met her at the mall.

The taxi drove into a lane populated with high-rises and she pointed to one of them and said, “That’s my house. Do you want to come up? I make good coffee. We could sit down and watch Friends.”

“Friends?”, I said, “I don’t like Friends.”

“You don’t like Friends?”, she said, arching her eyebrows disapprovingly.

“No I don’t. I’m more of a Seinfeld guy”, I said.

“What’s Seinfeld?”

“Seinfeld was a sitcom from the 90s that aired around the same time as Friends. You see, that’s why I like the 90s so much. The pop culture was neatly and helpfully segregated. You had Seinfeld for all the people who liked smart comedy and Friends for those who liked dumb comedy. You should try watching Seinfeld. It’s fantastic”, I blurted on idiotically.

“I love Friends. It’s very funny. You think it’s a dumb show?”

“Well, yeah.”

She sighed. “Okay, maybe you don’t want to come up then. I like dumb shows.”

“Haha it’s okay, I could come up for coffee.”

“You think I’m calling you up so I could serve you coffee?”, she said, with a grin.

“Yeah, I could come up for anything…”, I stuttered clumsily.

“You’ve killed the mood, lah”, she said, giving me a hug, “Maybe you should watch dumb shows instead of smart ones.”

We said goodbyes and after she had gone inside the building, I got rid of the cab and walked 3 kms back to my hostel on the desolate streets of midnight KL feeling desperately hollow and stupid.

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Khati

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I had slumped into such a deep slumber owing to the exertions of the 10 hour hike the previous day that D had to bang the creaky wooden door down to its breaking point to wake me up. It had been a cold, uncomfortable night beneath a mountain of blankets and all my interlocking dreams had my bones shivering in an Arctic weather and the shivering continued seamlessly to the time I had woken up in the middle of the night wondering if the scenes of me riding a dog sled on thin ice was real or dreamt. But the exhaustions of the day had given me at least a few hours of deep, sound sleep.

D asked me to get ready quickly because we were getting late for school. This was a bizarre thing to hear for someone in his late 20s first thing in the morning and I pinched myself to check if the dream cycle was still on. It wasn’t and I grumbled my way to the big tub of water in the corner to brush my teeth. It was one of the more unpleasant tooth-brushings up to that point in my life.  There was no wash basin and I had to make use of the murky water in the big tub to rinse the mouth near the grimy squat toilet.

The government school in the village was housed in a small wood and stone structure. We went to the school because D wanted to introduce me to his kids. The school appeared to have fairly lax discipline because the kids were allowed to saunter out of class for something as unimportant as this. Like all encounters I’ve ever had with kids, this was predictably awkward. D told them who I was and they stared at me for 10 seconds waiting for the stranger to break the ice or do something funny. I asked their names. They told me. Then they just sort of looked at each other sheepishly perhaps exchanging funny impressions of the stranger telepathically. D tried to ease the tension by asking them to ask me what my name was. They asked. I told them. Then he asked them to ask me where I came from. At this point, they glumly told him they didn’t have the time for this shit and would like to go back to class. D laughed and let them run away. I was relieved.

We then went to his house to get some breakfast. Like most of the houses in Khati, it was made of traditional wood-and-stone Garhwali architecture with bright blue doors and windows decorated with crude ornamental carvings. A bare-chested man with a chest full of hair sprawled in a corner. D introduced him to me as his uncle. I dutifully smiled and greeted the man but the uncle was far less diplomatic. He wasn’t happy to see a stranger enter his house at that hour of the morning and grumbled at D in a drooly slur asking why he kept bringing strangers into the house. D asked me to ignore him and brought a cup of chai, a plate of boiled spinach leaves and a few dry rotis.

The army of houseflies buzzing around us seemed keener on feasting on this meal than I was. D observed that I was tentatively prodding at the rotis instead of eating them and said, “Foreigners pay thousands of rupees for this experience. You’re getting it for free. So just eat.” So I ate. It wasn’t the most delicious meal in the world but it was nutritious enough and would provide nourishment for the many hours of strenuous walk ahead.

I took out my Panasonic LS70, the cheapest camera money could buy in 2009, to get some shots of the village before leaving. It was a 7.2 megapixel camera that ran on AA batteries and I realised to my dismay that the batteries inside were on their last legs and I hadn’t had the presence of mind to buy some when I was shopping for trekking clothes in Kapkote. This was a serious downer because the best landscapes were arguably ahead of us and while I appreciated old-fashioned perspectives on enjoying moments purely without worrying about capturing them, I wanted to take at least a few pictures to remind me of this journey when I looked back at it years later.

When I frantically ran up to D to ask if he knew a shop that sold batteries, he gave me that world-weary look that he had a habit of giving people when they said something stupid or disagreeable. Did I know we were in a village with no road access or electricity?, he said, angrily. There was only one shop that served the entire village and we had to go to the house of the man who owned it to get him to open it up for us. He had no AA batteries, he said, but he had some that were meant for torchlights but would also fit the camera. I bought a dozen of those when I saw that the first two gave out within the four pictures I took to test them out and hoped fervently that the rest would at the least allow me to take half a dozen pictures for keepsakes.

Khati is one of the last old-world villages left in the Indian Himalayas. It’s at the edge of the wilderness, the last inhabited place before the mountains take over. Even in 2019, there’s no direct road access as the nearest road-head is at a village called Khirkiya, a 5 km walk over the hills. It’s setting is absolutely mesmerizing, with high, steep, thickly forested mountains surrounding it on all sides and the high peaks of Kalanag and the Nanda Devi range looming above on clear days. It’s a village one would love not just to visit but linger.

So one of the regrets I have when I think about the time I did the trek in 2009 is that I hadn’t allowed myself even a cursory look at the village. I was so caught up with buying batteries, catching up on sleep, chilling at D’s house and prepping for the day’s trek that there was no time left to take even a casual stroll. Someday they’ll finish the road to Khati which will be a boon to the people who live there. But for a romantic like myself, who has seen places crumble to ugly and unchecked development, it will be a sad day when the regret of not fully experiencing a place when it was pristine and untouched only grows stronger.

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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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Bhavnagar – Markets, photography, domestic quarrels

My routine in Bhavnagar was set from the very first day. That morning I braved the ad hoc traffic on the Bhidbhanjan Chowk by the Bhidbhanjan Mahadev temple and walked towards the busy markets at Ghogha Gate where I stopped at Govind restaurant for breakfast. Here, puris were whipped out of a large iron cauldron bubbling with hot oil, plates of buttery pavs and greasier bhajis were doled out in quick time and for those who truly had no fear of diabetes or cholesterol, deep fried ghatiyas with an assortment of sweet and spicy pickles were brought forth in plentiful amounts.

After this calorific feast, I went to the grungy chai stall a couple of blocks away where every chai drinker appeared to know everyone else and I had to put up with the collective stare every time I ventured in. But this was a great place to sit (or stand) for a while watching the life on the street. It was Id-ul Milad that day and the street was buzzing with one vibrant, colourful procession after another with trucks and floats decorated in all manner of gaudy colors and kids riding atop adorned with turbans and large groups of men marching on foot waving their flags. Many of the trucks had people distributing sweets and snacks and while this entire parade was being done under heavy security cover, it was a scene that was joyful to behold.

To let my system digest the greasy food and acidic chai, I walked about the old town area whose lanes were endowed with a generous sprinkling of old world architecture, much of it truly gothic in appearance. The first place I went to, winding past the doors of a Jain temple and numerous sweet marts, was the bustling fruit and vegetable market, not to buy fruits and vegetables but because I’d read on the internet that this was a great place to take pictures. It was housed in a dingy, grimy building with decades of grease and dirt texturing the walls. Rows of vendors were labouring in stalls furnished with rusty fans and light bulbs and decorated with pictures of multifarious gods and ancestors who might have worked those very stalls years ago.

Although I’d grown up in India and had seen many of these markets in my life, I was still amazed that, even in this digital age, timeless places like these existed where life went on like it always had. Until i.e. in all that excitement, I whipped out my DSLR camera and made every head in the space turn and brought it decidedly down to the digital age. Some wondered if I was a news reporter, another anxious guy who took the trouble to walk all the way from one end of the hall wished to know if I was with the Muncipal Corporation, three other dudes showed up requesting facebook profile pictures, one young boy was sure I was a foreigner because he had seen a white person taking pictures of the market a few months ago.

I might not be a foreigner but I certainly felt like a tourist and it felt strange to be a tourist in a place that doesn’t see any tourists. Nevertheless, I braved the attention and smiled awkwardly at anyone who met my eye to get to the far end of the hall where an aged man was sweeping the dust off the floors while workers laboured at hauling big baskets of fruits and vegetables from the large jute sacks to the stalls. The dust had the effect of highlighting the light shafts that slanted into the hall through the latticed windows creating a scene that was truly cinematic. It helped that the people who made me the center of attention had decided they had given me enough of that and went back to work making me feel less conscious as I was capturing the scenes of them working in the gorgeous light.

After this photographic tour, I walked back to M.G. Road, the main market street, to look at the old buildings, many of whom had retained their ornamental wooden facades. Inside them, businessmen and tailors worked away and their activities could be glimpsed through quaint windowed galleries. I took out my camera again to snap pictures and people came up to me to ask if I was making a film or doing a survey and when they learnt that I was only interested in the beauty of the architectures, they pointed me in the direction of other old buildings hidden away in the alleys, some lived in and well preserved housing shops and residences behind grand facades, some quite dilapidated and ghostly in appearance but still preserving remnants of the gothic trimmings.

After hours of walking about the alleys of the market, I exhaustedly took refuge in the confines of an old, begrimed chai shop which was housed in a building reminiscent of an art deco structure and whose interiors were furnished with a few wooden tables and stools.  Here, a woman was complaining to her husband about the botched embroideries on a sari she had given to one of the tailors toiling away in the building opposite to us. The husband didn’t know what to say or do about it. He then saw the camera I had kept on the table and asked if I could take a picture of the piece so he could send it to a tailor he trusted in Ahmedabad to see if he could fix it. Before I could respond, another man who was sitting in a corner came up to him and introduced himself as a tailor and said he could give it a shot if he wished.

The woman, having already suffered an inferior work at the hands of a local tailor, said she would only pay him after seeing what he’s done with it. The man refused to work without an advance payment. The husband didn’t mind paying him a little if it got the work going. The woman yelled at her husband for being such a gullible twit and blamed their financial troubles on his general timidity in dealing with other people. The tailor decided he had enough of this domestic quarrel and squirreled away. After his wife had calmed down, as I was finishing my cup of chai, the husband came back to me and asked if I could take a picture of the sari. Before I could say yes, the woman launched into him again and said there was no need for a picture because unless she met this tailor friend of his and clearly explained what needed to be done there was no need to whatsapp him pictures and get his hopes up.

Before the man could drag me back into the conflict, I finished my cup of chai with a mighty gulp and left the scene. It had been an eventful first day in the old town of Bhavnagar.

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Agartala – Luxury rooms, haute cuisine, cinema verite

Outside the Jogendranagar station, Vivek, Fayyaz and I were greeted with the perfect storm of honking, deafening, clashing traffic, swirling winds lifting dust off the streets and pushing it onto our faces, and an onrush of rickshaw-pullers and rickshaw drivers beckoning us to go with them for highly inflated rates. Fayyaz and Vivek acted as if they had seen this plenty of times as they nonchalantly evaded the chaos and crossed the street miraculously avoiding multiple potentially debilitating traffic accidents. As I gingerly stumbled across the street, clinging on to dear life, I could see the “What’s this, amateur hour?” expressions scribbled in bold letters on their faces.

Both of them had booked the same hotel in the city because they believed it was the only hotel worth staying at if you weren’t a millionaire. Since I didn’t have a place to stay, I followed them to the Central Guest House, where a flight of stairs led past the doors of a bank to dank and narrow corridors leading to small and dingy rooms lit by lone, weary light bulbs and furnished with squat toilets. Fayyaz and Vivek happily took the squat toilet rooms that they snagged for 250 Rs.

I was going to walk out and find another, more cheerful place to stay but just as I was about to do so, one of the attendants asked me to follow him upstairs and have a look at a “luxury” room. The luxuries here were a tubelight, a small wooden shelf to keep your things, a western commode whose flush was broken and instead of the 10 foot by 4 rooms below, a more spacious 10 foot by 6 area to live in. These additional amenities cost a 150 Rs. more and with some bargaining help from Fayyaz, I got the room rate down to 350.

We were all pretty hungry by the time we freshened up and dumped our bags in the room. Vivek was a vegetarian and much to Fayyaz’s disappointment, he suggested we go to one of the only vegetarian places he found affordably edible in the city, a sterile food court type restaurant on the top floor of a clothes mall. Fayyaz had now become so attached to Vivek that he joined us regardless of his misgivings about having to eat vegetarian food at the end of a long journey.

Vivek, who considered himself a connoisseur of the multifarious items available at the different counters, insisted on placing all our orders. When our orders arrived, Fayyaz and I exchanged knowing glances, perhaps because we were thinking the same thing i.e. how in the hell were we going to eat any of the food put before us on the table. We stared helplessly at the plates of leaky chaat, greasy, borderline nauseating thalis, pizza dosa, a revoltingly buttery paneer tikka masala and a bowl of jeera rice sprinkled with a generous amount of oil. We hadn’t eaten anything for over 8 hours but even our hunger pangs chose not to trouble us anymore having had a look at the food that was meant to satisfy them.

Vivek, though, was singularly untroubled by this sight and went about his business of demolishing one plate after the other with the ferocity of a lion lunching on its prey after a successful hunt. Fayyaz and I took turns at gentle nibbles of bits of edible portions of a naan here, some dal there, a bit of papad. After a while, Fayyaz had enough of this and pretended to be busy on a phone call and vanished. Vivek was so busy gorging on the food that he didn’t realise Fayyaz had left until 10 minutes later. When I had seen that stuff land on the table, I felt guilty for all the food that would go wasted, fears that turned out to be entirely irrational as I watched Vivek devour every artery-clogging dish he had ordered.

Once he had wiped all the oil off his fingers and his face and Fayyaz had returned from his imaginary phone call and a clandestine street food meal, Vivek wondered if we were game for dessert and coffee. He was gone before we could say no after which Fayyaz turned to me and wondered how Vivek hadn’t collapsed of a heart attack yet. Our gluttonous acquaintance then arrived with 2 plates of gulab jamun, one of rosogulla and 3 cups of coffee, coffee that was so bad it tasted like a hot cup of citrine gruel. I took it with me on the pretext of going to the washroom and dumped it in the dustbin when no one was looking.

As if this exhausting meal and the exertions of the day hadn’t been enough, Vivek now wanted to go watch a movie. The only ones playing in Agartala that day were Tera Intezaar starring Arbaaz Khan and Sunny Leone and Firangi starring the most popular and hence over-rated comedian in India, Kapil Sharma. I would have been happy to see neither and gone to my room to sleep but just the memory of the 10 x 6 room that awaited me made want to spend more time outdoors. Vivek and Fayyaz were partial towards Tera Intezaar because as Fayyaz, looking longingly at the Sunny Leone poster said, “Unhe dekhne toh hum chaand tak bhi jaa sakte hain.” (I could even go to the moon to see her)  Both were highly disappointed when the guy at the ticket counter informed them that they had to cancel the show because of low occupancy.

Vivek and Fayyaz were quite crestfallen to hear this and had no option but to go for the alternative. I was extremely hungry because I hadn’t eaten anything at the food court and I got myself a big plate of nachos, a cup of coffee and a large tub of popcorn. When Vivek saw this he said, “You’re still hungry after eating so much? You should take care of your health. Eating so much food is not good for you.” I resisted the temptation to slap his face.

Before the film began, Fayyaz told me he was quite a fan of Kapil Sharma’s show and he hoped the film would be in a similar vein of nonsense humour. But, alas, like perhaps many a Kapil Sharma fan in the world, he was distressed to find that this was his comedy idol’s attempt at “sensible cinema”. Set in the pre-Independence era, the film plodded along with one unfunny scene after the other where the only goal appeared to have been to show that this dude, who headlined the silliest of talk shows in the world, could also “act”. 30 minutes into the film, I could hear loud stereophonic droning noises, one from the left and one from the right. Vivek and Fayyaz had snored off to deep sleep. It was midnight hour and there was no reason for me to continue watching that drivel. So I walked back to my 10 by 6 at the Central Guest House to sleep off the hectic day.

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Melaka – Jonker 88 and other sweets

“Hey, how you doin’?”, squeaked a voice from behind me as I turned a corner on a random stroll through Jonker street.

“Me?”, I asked the lady who posed the query.

“Yes, you.”

“Doing fine. How’re you?”

“It’s a hot day. You wanna try some sweets?”

If it was India, I would have moved on but since I was in Melaka, I was curious to know what she was selling. It was a tiny little shop with a couple of chairs put up outside and boxes of sweets piled all over the place. The woman who called me out and ran the shop was dressed in a bright red floral skirt and had layers of plastic surgery and make-up on her face to cover the wrinkles and her age.

“I knew you like sweets because you’re from India,” she said.

“How do you know I’m from India? I could also be Malay or Pakistani.”

“Because you carry your bag on one shoulder. Malay would never do that because he know he would get robbed by bikers. Anyway, come sit. Taste some of this.”

She opened a large enamel bowl filled with a thick, gooey, jelly-like substance, carefully ran a spoon in to pluck the smallest amount possible and gave me what was easily the tiniest portion of a dessert I’ve ever been offered. It tasted mildly sweet, a bit eggy, with a hint of saltiness. It was weird but as soon as I was done consuming it, I hankered for more.

“How do you like it?”, she asked.

“Interesting, although I’ll need to taste some more to know if I want to buy it.”

“Some more? It’s expensive, lah. One spoon 30 dollars. A full box 2000 dollars. You have money?”

“Never mind then. What is it anyway?”

“It’s called Bird’s Nest, one of the most expensive delicacy from China.”

“Oh, interesting. What’s it made of?”

I wish I hadn’t asked because what I heard had the effect of making me want to throw up right away.

“Bird saliva”, she said casually, like it was the most normal thing in the world. “Take it to your family, lah. It’s precious and rare. You don’t get it in India.”

“It’s too expensive”, I said.

“Only 50$ for this one box. Not expensive. It’s diluted.”

“I don’t have that kind of money and I don’t plan to be in India for a few months. How do they get the saliva anyway? Someone stands under trees while the birds spit?”

“No, lah”, she said, laughing, “We have a factory where birds make nests. I can take you if you want.”

“I think I’m okay not seeing that. Is there any place nearby where you get a good dessert that doesn’t cost 2000$ and isn’t made of bird saliva?”

“You want to eat dessert?”, she asked, looking at me as if it was the most ridiculous notion in the world.

“Yeah, dessert would be good.”

“Give me a minute”, she said and then hollered at a fat kid who was playing a couple of blocks away. She gave him some instructions in Chinese and then turned to me and said, ”Okay, let’s go.”

She took me to a place called Jonker 88, a claustrophobic cafe set in an old Chinese shophouse. The atmosphere was remarkably old-fashioned with quaint pictures of old Melaka and Chinese artwork adorning the walls, shelves packed with ornamental trinkets, little Chinese dolls and toys stacked on a mirrored gallery and a few wooden stools and tables packed close in a tiny space. It was packed to the gills with people slurping laksa bowls and cooling themselves off with icy desserts.

We had to wait in a queue to place our orders and when Yue Xi, for that was the name of the Bird’s Nest lady, saw that the Australian couple in front of us was taking an inordinately long time to decide, she took matters into her own hands and told them she could order for them if they wished. Bowled over by her confidence, they relented. Xi invited them to eat with us and when they agreed, she ordered four different things in super quick time. The people making our dessert were equally quick as big globs of ice were shoved into a machine to be shaved and then transferred onto bowls where they added the ingredients as per our orders.

We carried our four large bowls of cendol, Malaysia’s favorite dessert, to the only vacant table we could find, right below large red and blue frames of Mandarin calligraphy. Cendol is essentially shaved ice, gula melaka (a local variety of palm sugar), santan (coconut milk), a sprinkling of flavoured syrups and sometimes green rice noodles and durian. I thought the durian version was too sweet but there was one bowl with peanuts and jelly and an assortments of tangy syrups that was absolutely fantastic.

I learnt a few things about Yue Xi from the conversation the Australians had with her. They had been to China the previous year and wondered if she too came from China. She did, but her family left the country during the volatile period in the 60s to take refuge in the town of Ipoh in Malaysia. She had a tough childhood when her parents worked around the clock, working in a tin mining factory during the day and selling noodles in the market at night. But they pulled through and eventually moved to Melaka when one of her cousins had the enterprising idea of harvesting swiftlets for the much sought-after birds-nest delicacies in China. She then went on to explain the entire laborious process of extracting the raw material and processing it to make it ready for consumption, information that I could have done without because it made even the amazing cendol bowls on the table feel unappetizing.

Just as I was stopping the cynic in me from wondering if this entire conversation was a marketing pitch, Yue Xi snapped in her trademark squeaky tone, “I can take you to see the factory if you want. And then you can come to my shop and see if you want to buy some to take home.” The Australians sounded very excited by the idea and said they would love to go. She looked at me sardonically and asked, “You still don’t wanna go?” I was absolutely sure, I said.

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Bhavnagar – Getting there

The Gujarat State Road Transport Corporation has an app that lets you book seats online. So I downloaded it, filled a sign up form and after a number of app crashes managed to book seat 21, a 4th row window seat on the 11 am bus going from Vadodara to Bhavnagar. Having travelled in Indian state transport buses for much of my traveling life, it was a comfort to know that I wouldn’t have to fight for a seat or get crushed by a stampede of passengers wanting to get in or travel 5 hours standing all the way.

But as India regularly reminds you, things are never what they seem (or are promised) to be. The platform number that the app said my bus would leave from was non-existent and it took long sweaty run-arounds from the enquiry counter to the various platforms to figure out where I had to wait for the bus I had booked. Finally, I found it in the most old-fashioned way possible, with a conductor yelling “Bhavnagar” so loudly that the entire neighbourhood could hear it.

There were already a hundred people trying to get in and all the seats had been filled. My frantic demands for my booking to be honoured went completely ignored. I walked back to sit down in the waiting area to think a little. Did I really want to go to Bhavnagar? Was it worth all this trouble? Was I too old for this shit?

These existential ruminations were interrupted by the conductor yelling the number “21” in all directions as the driver assumed his position and began to start the engine. I ran as quickly as I could to take my rightful seat which, to my considerable disappointment, wasn’t the promised window seat on the fourth row but the middle seat on the second which was the row right next to the door. Like a lot of things in the modern world, here was a distinct difference between the dreams advertised online and the downers that existed in real life.

I felt sorry for the old man who had to vacate seat no. 21 on my account. But my empathies wouldn’t last long as he promptly took the little bit of room left next to the person sitting on the aisle seat thus squeezing the space available to me even further. To the old man, things couldn’t have worked out better because the easy access to the door gave him the liberty to chew all the paan he had on his hands (which was quite considerable) and spew these contents out of his mouth every time the conductor opened the door to let passengers hitching on the highway into an already jampacked bus. I saw people sitting on the aisle, people sitting on the engine, people sitting on people and one particular person who was sitting on top of my head making the 3 inches of the backrest handle his home.

To compound this misery, the driver, either in a state of depression from an emotionally wrenching heartbreak or in a spectacular display of bad taste, insisted on playing the most cantankerous song in the history of Hindi cinema i.e. “Ishq Mein Nachenge” from Raja Hindustani, a song I had considered myself fortunate to have never heard since I first did back in 1998, on a loop for the entire length of the journey. There were no signs of protest from the other passengers and some thoroughly enjoyed this atrocity and hummed along to it. I felt like my ears were being Clockwork Orange’d to deafness and my brains being reduced to mush.

I couldn’t distract myself by staring at the scenery outside either, my views being blocked from all sides. The people around me killed the time by socialising with each other and I felt like that awkward introvert at a cocktail party who didn’t know anybody or what they were saying. It was only 2 and a half hours later when we reached the town of Dholera that I got anything resembling air and a bit of quiet. The bus stopped here for tea and snacks and we all stood there drinking tea and eating snacks staring at the beauteous sight of a large cement grinder whipping up dust across the road. The landscape here was industrial, scrubby, parched, arid and dry. Dholera was earmarked as one of India’s numerous futuristic smart cities. I guess it takes time build one of those.

Half the bus emptied at Dholera because many of the people who had hopped in were labourers working at the various construction sites in the town. One of these people happened to be the person sitting next to me and I felt happy as a 6 year old child at getting a window seat for the rest of the journey. If the vistas pre-Dholera were anything like post-Dholera, I hadn’t missed out on an awful lot of beautiful scenery. The landscape was both bucolic and industrial, a woman herding her sheep by the side of the road, men fishing on the sandy banks of a lake far in the distance, dry grasslands and scrublands forming the periphery of the Blackbuck Sanctuary, egrets and herons resting on the waterbodies adjacent to the chemical plants where large mounds of salt waited in the sun to be processed.

My hotel in Bhavnagar was a 20 minute walk from the bus stand. The rickshaw drivers offered to take me there for 30 Rs. but the weather was pleasant, my bags were light and I chose to walk  following google maps which showed me a short cut that went through a large park area adorned with strange sculptures of muscular men exercising. The gardens were well-kept and had quaint little bridges running over stagnant pools of water and kids played and frolicked about the grass and the slides. It wasn’t a bad place to begin looking at a new town.

Hotel Comfort Inn, at the edge of a traffic circle and hidden away above a Laxmi Narayan temple was exactly what it promised, a no frills, barebones place where the bathroom was tolerably clean and the plumbing worked. One didn’t expect anything more for 400 Rs. It was a long day and I needed a few cups of tea to nourish myself. So I walked down to a large traffic circle, past the quaint old, colonnaded edifice that housed the Bhavnagar Muncipal Corporation office, to a heavily busy chai stall populated by office goers and college students and spent the rest of the evening watching people while drinking bottomless cups of chai.

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Backwards from Pindari

This is an account of the Pindari Glacier Trek that I had done back in April 2009 and a continuation of this post.

All the passengers got off as the jeep screeched to a halt at Song, a village 5 kms before the trailhead at Loharkhet. The driver had to attend a wedding in the village and was in no mood to go any further just for the two of us. I wondered aloud how much it would cost to persuade him to take the jeep all the way to the trail head. D smirked with a vengeful grin and said, “500 Rs. This is why I asked you to go with my friend. If you had taken my advice, we would have been trekking by now.”

I gently reminded D that I was the boss and we were on a budget and if we have to walk 5 kms more, so be it and let’s move on. We moved on with D leading me on a short cut through a perilous trail that cut across the road. It wasn’t an easy walk for someone as unfit as I was. When we reached a little stream about 3 bends above the road, I was so exhausted that I threw down my bag and copiously washed my face with the icy cold water and asked D if we were there yet. D shook his head helplessly and said we had barely walked a mile. But I felt as if I had been walking all day. I had such a lot of sweat pouring out of my pores that I wondered if something was wrong with the plumbing in my fluid vessels.

We rested on a boulder where D, disappointment writ large across his face, wondered if we should take it easy. Our original plan was to finish the Pindari stretch in 4 long days. Now D broached the idea of doing it in 7 days, in short stretches and resting at more points on the way. When I heard this, the budget traveller in me got a rude shock because I realised I would be paying D 3 extra days than I would if I walked harder and faster. This had the effect an adrenalin shot would have on an ailing body making my senses spike and get their act together.

I heaved my way breathlessly to the Tourist guest house at Loharkhet where the chowkidar in its desolate interiors treated us to some tea and snacks. He was grateful for the human company, he said, because not too many people stopped by. It wasn’t the prettiest of places. The Himalayan peaks were hidden far away and the tall landslide-ridden mountains on the opposite slope were a bit of an eyesore. D was intent on getting the latest updates on local gossip with the caretaker and I had to interrupt their interminable conversation and ask him to move quickly so we have time to do the 24 kms to Khati by sundown.

As I clambered gingerly down a bouldered section that led to a stream on another one of D’s torturous shortcuts, I could feel something soft and squishy underneath my foot. It felt like horse dung or the back of a wet sponge. I shouldn’t have been feeling anything because I was walking with well worn, rugged Woodland shoes. When I leaned down to investigate, I saw a sight that no trekker should ever have to see. The soles had come off and I was standing on a patch of dirt with bottomless shoes.

D, who had already crossed the stream and was halfway up the hill on the other side, looked at me exasperatedly. He spread his arms wide and asked, “What happened now?” I pointed at my shoe. He grumbled his way over and asked if I had any chappals. Of course I didn’t. I was enough of a cheapskate to have never bought any and had been happily tramping all over India for two months on these Woodland shoes.

“We have to go back”, he said.

“Can’t I just go on barefoot?”, I asked, trying to salvage the situation.

“Look at you”, he said, “You can’t walk in the mountains even with your shoes on.  How’re you going to walk barefoot?”

“Good point”, I said, obediently.

He then took this opportunity to gloat about the advice he had given me earlier. “If you had shopped for some of the things I had written in that list, we wouldn’t be in this situation”, he said, “When we go back to Kapkot, you better buy your thermal inners and a good feather jacket because I don’t think your sweater is going to save you when you’re shivering in zero degree cold in my village.”

I was angry but calmed down when he took off his chappals and lent them to me so I could walk back to Loharkhet where we were treated to more tea and snacks by the manager at the Tourist Rest House. The manager gave me a pair of gumboots that he said I could borrow till I found a good pair of shoes. Those shoes were so uncomfortable that they gave me blisters from just 10 minutes of walking down the jungly trail back to the road. My feet were bleeding and I told D that I couldn’t possibly walk any further. We waited by the roadside staring at the landslide-ridden landscapes until we got a ride on the back of a milk van to Kapkote.

In Kapkote, I surrendered to buy whatever D thought I needed for the trek, a sturdy pair of shoes, walking sticks, thermal inners, a thick wind-proof feather jacket, rain cover for the rucksack, slippers, a haul that cost me more than what I had budgeted for the entire trek. But now, I had resigned myself to the elements and chose to do the trek even if it was the last thing I did in my life. We spent the night at a dingy little dhaba on charpoys spread around the kitchen, the odor of rotting potatoes and stale meat filling the room. When D came over the next morning to ask if I wanted to go by the shared jeep, I said no, I’d rather spend a 1000 Rs. and take his friend’s jeep if that option was still available.

“Of course”, he said with a mischievous smile plastered on his face, “Whatever you want. It’s your trek.”

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