Return to Khati

It was 5 am and D frantically tried to wake me up to get ready to go to Kafni glacier. There aren’t many people I have hated in my life more than I hated him then. We had to leave immediately if we were to do the trek and return, he said, as he began peeling away the heap of blankets I had crawled under. As I wiped my groggy eyes, a thin gust of air blew in through the door and a frosty cold pierced my feather jacket to strike my bones causing me to wince painfully. I could barely stand up because my feet were swollen with blisters and the cold was making them hurt more. I saw AR sleeping peacefully under a mountain of blankets in a corner. He had been more enthusiastic about going to Kafni than I was when we spoke the previous evening. So I gently poked him to ask if he wanted to go but he was so deep asleep that it was like talking to a piece of corpulent log.

I told D I didn’t want to go because my feet were hurting so bad I didn’t think they could withstand another long day of trekking. D sighed in exasperation, shook his head in disdain and went away. I crawled back into my blankets and went back to sleep. Kafni glacier would always be there, I thought, and I could come back any time I wished. Except I never did and in the 10 years since that day, the glacier has perhaps retreated further into the mountains.

I woke up only when D entered the room with a cup of bed tea at 10 am and shook me awake shouting, “How long do you plan on sleeping? Another big group is coming. We have to get going. Come on!”

As I got up, my blisters were still painfully hurting. “I don’t think I can walk today”, I said mournfully. “Stop being a crybaby”, D said, “I have an ointment that you can put on your blisters and they’ll stop hurting. You should never trek so much with new shoes. Your sweat gets trapped in your socks and when the hard edges of the inner layers of your shoes poke the sweaty socks, they make your feet swell up with fluid. Sometimes they can be very dangerous and even cripple you for life.”

“So maybe I shouldn’t walk today if that’s the case”, I said, nervously gulping down the cup of tea, “I don’t want to lose my legs.”

“Oh don’t worry about that”, he said, “I won’t let anything happen to you. I’m trained in dealing with medical emergencies. Once a man much older than you sprained his foot after slipping on the ice near Zero Point. He had a hairline fracture but I hired a pony and made sure he got to a hospital safely. You only have blisters. In any case, you don’t have a choice. Another big group is coming and they have already booked the whole place. So you’ll have to leave anyway.”

I got out of the bed and walked to the restaurant area. It was populated by a small, chirpy group of school kids who had chosen to skip the trek to Kafni. D took this opportunity to taunt me in front of this group saying, “These kids are just like you, too lazy to walk.” This drew the attention of the kids towards me. A rowdy subgroup among these felt some time could be killed by trolling the wimpy adult.

“Why didn’t you go to Kafni?”, a girl asked.

“Why didn’t YOU go to Kafni?”, I asked.

“She asked first”, her friend said.

“Because I have painful blisters on my feet.”

“Why’s that?”

“I haven’t broken into my shoes yet. You want to see?”

“No. Why don’t you have good shoes?”

“Because you don’t get good shoes here. But even good shoes wouldn’t have saved me.”

“Why’s that?”

“Because shoes take time to break into.  And I bought these before the trek.”

“And you didn’t know that? Even we knew that before we came here. We all got good shoes.”

“So what’s your excuse?”, I said, a bit miffed, “Why didn’t you go?”

“We have fever.”

“So all of you have fever?”

“Yeah.”

“I find that hard to believe.”

“But it’s better than your excuse.”

This went on for the next half an hour and might have gone on all day had AR not interrupted the conversation to tell me he was leaving for Khati. I quickly finished my bowl of maggi and followed him to the background music of mocking laughter.

We walked back to Khati the same way we came, through undulating ridges, dainty river banks, perilous log bridges and thickly forested trails. It was only when we reached the TRH on the steep hillside high above the village that I realised we had taken a different route. D hadn’t said anything about accommodation in the village and I didn’t know where he was because I had no signal on my phone and had lost track of him soon after leaving Dwali. But the caretaker here was so friendly, welcoming us with a big smile and cups of chai, that I didn’t feel like going back to the village to look for D. The caretaker seemed untroubled by this communication breakdown. He felt D would eventually figure it out and come to the TRH if he had any brains.

There was ample space at the Khati TRH with AR and I having the entire space to ourselves. We were sitting outside in the grassy open area sipping chai when we heard loud grunts coming from below us. It emanated from a tall, Caucasian male laboriously dragging himself up the hillside with two walking poles. Behind him was a much fitter Indian woman who walked up the steep staircase like she was taking a stroll on a beach. The Caucasian man collapsed onto a chair as soon as he reached the top and threw a panicky fit when he realised that the hydration pack on his rucksack had run out of water. He frantically cried out for drinking water which shocked the caretaker into running inside to get two big jugs full of it.

In the meantime, D came running from the distance looking very worried and angry. Why didn’t I go down to the village?, he said. He began a long rant about how he had made arrangements at the local headman’s house and how he could have taken me on a short hike to a hilltop for mountain views but he stopped when he saw R, the Caucasian man, emptying an entire jug of water down his throat. He walked up to him, introduced himself as a top himalayan guide and began to name drop trekking routes and mountain names. But all R wished to know was if it was possible to find a bottle of whiskey somewhere in the village. D wasn’t sure about whiskey but he said he would gleefully run down to the village and get something “strong”.

R and B, the Caucasian man and Indian woman, turned out to be friendly folks who loved to talk. R particularly didn’t like to shut up, especially after D had come running up with two large bottles of rum. He was from Germany and had married B and settled down in a small village in Goa.  He claimed to be an avowed lover of nature, who hated big cities and loved to wander around the mountains with his family. The Annapurna Circuit was his favourite and we were subjected to a long narrative of their trek and a detailed account of how brave their kids were to do the trek with them. He lamented the fact that the Nepal Government were building a road over the trail to connect all the villages and almost burst into tears thinking about all the pristine wildernesses that would be lost to this ugly development.

However, it didn’t take many rum shots for this environmental facade to fall. He soon revealed that he worked in real estate and was continually frustrated by the extent of corruption in India. Some of the projects he had been working on were deep inside Goan forests and it had been terribly difficult to get permits for those. He was especially troubled by the decline in the mining industry and how it was becoming more and more difficult to mine for iron in the Goan hills. Neither of us probed this environmental duplicity because R was a man who had a lot to say but wasn’t particularly interested in listening to what you had to think of his thoughts.

But the conversation was good fun and relieved much of the physical stress of the days before. We lost count of the hours we spent talking and went inside only when it began to rain well past midnight. That was when I realised I had been sitting in my trekking shorts and sweatshirt the entire time. The alcohol and conversation had numbed my senses into feeling a false sense of warmth. My bones were quivering in the cold and a spectacular shiver ran down my spine. I quickly put on whatever clothes I could find and slipped into a sleeping bag to slumber into a deep sleep.

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Neermahal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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Pindari

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How do you speak 36 languages?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Palitana – Not getting there

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No”, I said, “Please go away.”

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

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

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

I said, “Yes.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Things I learnt after living alone for 6 months at home without a regular job or a social life after 10 years of travel

1). It’s not easy.

2). The first two months are the easiest because your body is fatigued from all the travel and is happy to have one place to spend all the time. Because your friends haven’t seen you for such a long time, they are keen to meet you and you have a decent social life. This is the most you’ll ever see them. Make the most of it. 

3). As your social life wanes, you feel sadder and lonelier. The monotonous routines take a toll on your mental health. You stop getting out of the house. You try to engineer random encounters like you do when you travel but realise that it doesn’t really work when you’re at home because you live in a boring suburb where people like to keep to themselves and some unmarried loner who hasn’t been around for such a long time is too weird to engage with.  It’s not as if you never felt sad or lonely when you traveled but there was an inherent flux and movement of people in and out of your life then and that made sure you were never in that state for more than a couple of days. It’s the stagnancy of this city that hurts.

4). You learn to get used to the fact that you aren’t going to meet new people every day. Every other day you plan to pack your bags and get out but you look at all the money you’ve spent and the money you have and it doesn’t make sense anymore. So you try to make the boring monotony work. 

5). You learn not to call any of your friends to meet because you get sad when you realise that no one’s ever free when you want to hang out.  So you wait for that rare occasion when someone calls you. But when the occasion comes, you don’t feel like meeting anybody. Because you haven’t had any conversations for so long after you stopped traveling, you fear that you would feel awkward and not as interesting, sharp and uninhibited as you like to be. Sometimes you get over this fear and try to make the best you can out of this rare social evening but after it’s over, the loneliness hits you like a bullet. You feel like you should be doing this every day and you miss your traveling days when you were having these long conversations all the time.

6). You learn not to blame your friends for the situation you’re in because you’re the one responsible for the life you make. These are conscious choices you’ve made to feel freer and happier without having to work for somebody else and if you live in a city built purely for working people, you need to claw your way out of there. 

7). You wonder if you should look for a proper job but you’re a snob and your skills are so individualized and specific and unnecessary that you’ve practically thrown yourself out of the market. And then you think it’s probably not a good idea to work for someone else while being consigned to a claustrophobic cubicle after flying free for such a long time.  

8). You think you’re depressed but you google for signs of depression and realise you’re just plagued with anxiety and sadness. You think about going to a shrink but you remember that you don’t have a job and good shrinks are expensive and you would rather use that money for future travel because that’s the one thing you know that truly works for you. 

9). Your sleep takes the biggest hit. There are nights when you sleep very well and there are others when you don’t sleep at all. Sometimes it’s because you’re anxious about the fact that you’re alone. But you learn quickly that it’s okay if you don’t sleep at 3 am if you can’t. Even if you sleep much later, you can sleep till the afternoon and get your 8 hours. Perks of not having a job or a vibrant social life and being a master of your own time without anyone telling you how to live. 

10). You become sadder as your time in the city gets longer. But you also learn to cope with the sadness. If you’re sad, you stay sad and let the sadness wash over you. Don’t look at the phone or the laptop even if it may temporarily get you to a neutral state. That only serves to make you sadder when you look away. When you let yourself be sad without any crutches, you realise you get a clear head and some happiness at the end of it because your mind is done dwelling over the useless drivel it had been moping about. 

11). Stay away from social media as much as you can because nothing takes you down like reading about other people doing cooler things and making a ton of money. When you go to facebook and see everyone else leading a normal, happy life, be conscious that it’s only a mirage. You have no idea what’s going on in other people’s lives and how happy or miserable they really are. The only way you’re going to learn is if you meet them face to face and ask questions and you’ve stopped talking to them a long time ago. Also your life is unique and specific to your experience and if you compare it to other people, it’s only going to make you feel terrible. 

12). 80s heavy metal and old Hindi film music always works like a charm to alleviate the blues. 

13). But the only thing that truly works for you while you’re wallowing in misery all alone in the city is burying yourself into the work you like to do i.e. editing the thousands of pictures you’ve taken over the years, walking around the city shooting and exploring its corners and writing about your travels. They won’t make you any money but they keep the sadness away. And you feel as if you’re doing something worthwhile instead of thinking about where you could be right now if only you had x amount of money in your bank account. 

14). Make plans to get out of the city as soon and as often as you can but also try to make the city work for you. It’s difficult but not impossible. And it saves a ton of money. Make peace with the fact that your days of long, never-ending travels are over and that there’s a chance nothing you do in life from here on will ever be as good as what you did in those 10 years.  

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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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Kuala Lumpur – First Impressions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I drank my masala tea to that.

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

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

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

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Dwali-Phurkiya

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The hike from Khati to Dwali is one of the most languid and social hikes I’ve ever done. Every few minutes, our progress would be hindered by some acquaintance of D trudging along the path entertaining him with gossip and conversation. There were friends, guides, horsemen, pandits, old people, so diverse were the people we came across that it was hard to believe there was anyone left in the world who didn’t know D.

Two women, distant aunts of D, provided the most enjoyable company. They were on their way back from the forest with big baskets of wood on their backs. When they saw us, they took a break and began making tea with hot water from a big flask and tea powder. Both women had a lot of fun at D’s expense, dredging up the silly things he did as a kid – stealing chicken from the neighbours farm, wrecking giant cobwebs in the house and putting the spiders inside his mouth, annoying other girls his age by pulling their hair etc.

D soon had enough of this teasing and said we had to get moving quickly or our legs would get swollen up with all the rest. The women mocked him saying that was the randomest excuse they had ever heard and asked me not to worry because even the slowest of walkers walked to Dwali in under 3 hours. So we had more cups of tea and more conversation.

I told them that Khati was the most beautiful village I had ever seen and that nothing appears to have changed in a hundred years. The women shook their heads in disagreement. It wasn’t the village it was, they said. Back in the 70s when they grew up, only the hardiest of mainland Indians or foreigners ever made it to the village and when they showed up, it felt as if they had come from another world. But now, so many came every day that the surprise and the shock of seeing people from other cultures had dwindled to nothing. Even the language barrier didn’t exist anymore because most people had learnt to speak Hindi. People were more content back then, they said. Hardly anybody had money and while life was hard, they had everything they needed to survive. But now, thanks to tourism and easier access, everybody worked for money and no amount of money was ever enough. I could have talked to the women all day long, probing deeper into their history but we had to get moving if we wished to reach Dwali soon and I bid them a sad goodbye.

The most pleasurable section of the walk to Dwali was by the bright green grassy banks of the Pindari river. It was an ethereal faeriland with butterflies of myriad colors flitting by and scarlet minivets adding a touch of bright red to the landscape. Much to D’s annoyance, I took inordinately long breaks here to just sit by the river and watch it flow. On one of these breaks, D confessed that he had once fallen in love with a Gujarati girl from a group that had hired him for the trek. Even though he was a married man, he thought about her every single day, he said. He wrote long letters to her to stay in touch and was enormously happy when she replied to a few of them. It was a bittersweet happiness as it also made him feel guilty and sinful for loving another woman more than his wife. Having married at the age of 18, he felt trapped at having to lead a life he hadn’t chosen. He couldn’t run away from his village and his family because they were the only tangible things in the world that he had and without them, he would feel painfully lost.

By the time we crossed the wonky suspension bridge to reach the Dwali Tourist Rest House, it was 4 pm. I was delighted to be at the end of a beautiful day of hiking and looked forward to spending the rest of the evening with umpteen cups of tea staring at the mountains in front of me. But these alluring thoughts would prove to be delusional. The Dwali TRH was swarmed with a mighty group of kids from an International school in Pune. They had taken up all the accommodation and the place was so small and beds were in such short supply that there weren’t enough of them to accommodate the gargantuan support staff of guides, teachers, porters, rescue specialists, horsemen and random hangabouts.

The manager stormed out and admonished D for taking such a long time to get there. He was terribly angry and advised me to cut his fees for the day because it was his duty to get there early and book a place for his client. If we had gotten there merely two hours earlier, he might have found a corner for me to sleep in. But now it was too late. What took us so long anyway?, he asked, arms flailing about. It was such a short, easy hike! I told him, smiling sheepishly, about the many breaks we took on the way to enjoy the bounty of mother nature. He replied scornfully saying, “That’s good then. It’s good that you like nature because there’s a lot more nature ahead of you on the way to the rest house in Phurkiya. I’m sure you’ll enjoy it,” and stormed back in to entertain the army of children.

The hike to Phurkiya was everything the walk to Dwali wasn’t. The terrain was relentlessly uphill and steep. Because it was late in the evening, many of the icy stretches on the higher slopes were melting resulting in stretches that were seriously slippery. The hike was made even more treacherous as we had to hurry up to make it to the TRH at Phurkiya before it got dark. After a point, the jungles, the trees, the meadows, anything green that grew, disappeared from the landscape leaving us a barren rocky wilderness punctuated by the hardiest of shrubs that thrived in this inhospitable climate. Little clumps of high altitude wildflowers were just beginning to sprout. D said I should come back a few months later when the entire hillside turned into a bed of color after the flowers bloomed in the monsoon.

As we neared Phurkiya, the oxygen in the atmosphere gradually thinned, the air became colder and my head felt lighter. There were stretches where the snow was so deep that when my foot hit the surface, it sank to the knee. The last rays of the sun were angling across the jagged peaks in the distance and as the light grew dimmer, the mountains wallowed in a deep blue. It was mesmerizing to watch but I had no time to take in the landscapes at leisure as we had to hurry up and get to Phurkiya before it became completely dark.

When I reached the TRH in Phurkiya in April 2009, it was the remotest outpost I had ever been to. At the time I felt it was astonishing that it even existed. A lone structure looking over a mountainous wilderness close to one of the edges of the Himalayas. There were cascading trickles of meltwater falling down the mountains on the opposite slope and the whole area was desolate save for myself, D, the caretaker and AR, a solo trekker who would be my companion for over a week from here on.

It got dark and cold very quickly and all of us huddled together in the kitchen shed to take refuge by the fire. The caretaker delivered us a simple yet sumptuous meal of dal, roti, vegetables and bottomless cups of chai as we made conversation. AR had quit his job to travel and had been trekking alone for the past few days. As two people who had momentarily given up a secure life to wander aimlessly, we connected immediately.

But kitchen fires don’t burn forever and we had to get out of the warm confines of the shed and venture out in the sub zero cold to our rooms to catch some sleep before another long hike the next morning. AR and I were given two mattresses and a mountain of quilts to sleep inside a dark and dank little room. The night was so cold that even though I had all my clothes on and about three heavy quilts over, I was still shivering to the bone. I looked at the time. Five minutes short of 10 pm. It was going to be a long night.

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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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