Ramnagar

S had to report back to duty at the TRH. So although we would have loved to stay longer at his rustic abode, we had to make a move after a couple of days of tramping up and down the hills. His village was one of those tranquil idylls with no road connectivity. The roadhead where we could catch a bus or share jeep to Almora was in Dhaulachina, a trek of a few miles through the forest.

This would have been fine if we were walking freely with our daypacks. But both A and particularly I were loaded with luggage. A didn’t have a problem because he carried one heavy rucksack that had all his belongings. But I had about 20 kilos of extra baggage full of books scored at Mr. Arora’s bookstore in Dehradun and these items were packed in an unwieldy sling bag.

S volunteered to carry one of the bags for me but the proud idiot that I was, I steadfastly refused the offer. As a result, I found myself stopping every 5 minutes to gasp for breath and drink water. The undulating terrain, the ton of luggage and my general lack of fitness took a weary toll. At one point, A and S had a lead of over 2 kilometers over me and I was going so slowly that S had the time to run back home for an errand and find me just a 100 meters ahead on his way back.

It all made S a very angry man. He snatched the sling bag from my hands and ran ahead and beckoned me to walk faster because he had to get back to work in 3 hours and the walk was long and we might even miss our transport if we didn’t hurry up. The sling bag and the books was a particular target of S’s fury. Who brings books on a trip to the hills, he yelled. That too, so many of them. He had never seen me reading any of them, so what was the purpose of lugging so many along? They would have been more useful to set up a fire at night when it got cold. And why the hell was I carrying a sling bag? Had I never traveled before?

When we reached the roadhead, we bid goodbye to S and promised to return to stay with him some day. “Don’t bring this bag next time”, he said, wagging a finger in my face. You live and you learn.

We had time to kill before a tempo or a sumo or a milk van or a bus would take us to Almora. So a simple lunch of dal, roti, veggies was consumed at a grungy dhaba run by an elderly gentleman. Two labourers sat in a corner sipping cups of chai. They were from Nepal and had been working on a tourist resort on a hillside above Dhaulachina for 4 months. “Life must be very hard for you guys”, I said, still as clumsy and awkward with conversation as ever. “Not at all”, one of them replied, “This is good work and we don’t ever want to go back.” “What about your family?”, I said. “They’ll be fine. They’re probably happier that we are here. When we make enough money and buy a house, we’ll bring them here.”

At that note of big dreams and high hopes, a sumo with two vacant seats at the back arrived to take us to Almora. Both A and I had been to the town so many times in the month that we had no desire to spend any more time there. But we hadn’t checked our emails or the internet for a while, so we made a pitstop at a local cybercafe near Bansal Hotel before deciding how to make a push to our next destination.

We knew we were going to the Corbett National Park but we hadn’t figured out how to manage expenses on what would certainly be an expensive trip. We had left messages on the indiamike forums looking for people who might like to join us to share costs and got a message from just one person, a businessman from Delhi, who said he had already been to Corbett just two weeks before but would have loved to join us not out of interest but out of pity but couldn’t even if he wished to because he had other plans.

So after some samosa chaat and chai at Bansal Hotel, we scrambled down the steep stairs that led to the lower main road to catch a jeep to Haldwani. It was dark by the time we reached the town and I was hoping to rest up in a hotel because it had already been quite a hectic day with the hike and traveling and internet surfing and if left to my languid self, I would have done each of these activities on separate days. But A was a hardier traveler and he wished to push on to Ramnagar the same night and to Corbett NP early next morning.

His arguments were persuasive. Why would anyone want to spend a night in Haldwani?, he said. I don’t know, I said with a shrug, new town, maybe there’s a market, good food somewhere but even as I was saying these words, I knew my reasoning made very little sense. So we had a hasty meal of dal, roti, sabzi at a local dhaba and rushed to catch the first bus to Ramnagar we could.

We didn’t really have to rush because there was a bus to Ramnagar running every half an hour. It wasn’t a particularly crowded bus either, which made me wonder why so many buses ran between the two towns. Nevertheless, we got front seats and it was a comfortable ride on flat tarmacked roads of the plains, which after a couple of months of winding Himalayan terrain, felt like we were cruising on a Boeing.

Ramnagar isn’t the town one would expect at the edge of the most famed tiger reserve in the world. It was worn around the edges like many small roadhead towns were, with blaring horns, busy bazaars, general cluttered mayhem all around. We trudged through the chaos looking for a place to crash and found a windowless room in a dank little hotel for 500 Rs. It had been a tiring day and we crashed as soon as we got to the hotel and resolved to wake up at 5 am the next morning to figure out how to navigate the labyrinthine bureaucracies and snag a room inside the famed Corbett Reserve.

The alarm rang at 5 am but neither of us woke up.

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Binsar, May 2009

Anyone who’s been to a National Park in India would know that they tend to be somewhat pricey, especially when you’re traveling like I was, on a budget that’s unlikely to buy you even a shoestring. So I teamed up with A, the fellow solo vagabonder I met on the trek to Pindari, to journey into some of Kumaon’s famed wildernesses.

Binsar National Park, helpfully situated on a hill on the outskirts of Almora, would be our first escapade. As far as we knew, there was only one place to stay within the park, the Tourist Rest House run by KMVN. There were two ways to get there. First, take a bus, get off on the highway and walk 10 miles uphill. Two, hire a cab, go all the way up without putting a foot in the forest. Having walked for a week in the wilderness to Pindari, neither of us were in any mood for option one. So option two it was.

The rates for the rooms at the Binsar TRH were as high as its altitude. For a couple of dirt-baggers like A and I, it was way out of our league. Nevertheless, since we had ventured so far and the way back was both a bit long and depressing, we made an exception, even if just for a night. We got a taste of what people who spent all that money were getting in return, which was, to be perfectly honest, not very much. The room was somewhat spacious and reasonably clean but essentially it served the same purpose as our 300 Rs. rooms in various towns did, put a roof over our heads and give us a place to pee and shit in.

Anyway, A made the best of an expensive situation. He got his laptop out, put on some jazz and blues, ordered some beer and food. He wondered if I liked this sort of music. I didn’t but the pathological liar that I was, I tried to fake my way out of the situation by namedropping some artists I claimed I liked, B B King, Robert Johnson, John Coltrane, Miles Davis etc. (I knew the names but had heard very little of the music). But when he asked if I knew which songs were playing, I got caught out because I couldn’t identify even the most popular jazz/blues classics.

It would have been a bit of a waste to come all the way up here and not explore the ornithological treasures that lay hidden in the jungles around because it was, after all, first and foremost, a bird sanctuary. So we hired a guide through the reception who woke us up at the unearthly hour of 5.30 am for a stroll up the steep slopes of the oak and pine forests.

To A’s delight and my profound displeasure, S was an extremely enthusiastic guide who knew his birds. Whenever he heard a bird call, he rushed up the hill and urged us to run up with him. A, being fit and healthy, had no trouble doing this. But I, being borderline obese, huffed and puffed up and by the time I got up, the bird would have flown.

A was also way more efficient with organizing information. While I depended solely on my memory to remember all the birds I saw (the reason why I couldn’t remember half of them when I sat down to write a list later that night in my notebook), A had brought a pen along and had scribbled their names on his entire arm.

We saw a lot of birds. We saw birds I never knew existed in colours I had never seen before. The Eurasian Jay, the Blue Whistling Thrush, the Green Backed Tit, the Grey Canary-headed Flycatcher, the Oriental Turtledove among a couple of dozen others. But of them all, S’s favorite bird would become my favorite too, a tiny creature with a red belly that loved to perch high up on a tree and you had to squint very hard to see, the Scarlet Minivet.

On our way back to the TRH, we felt a bit unhappy about having to check out after breakfast. The adrenaline rush after seeing so many birds scrambling up and down the hills was so high that we (and especially A) wanted more of it. Hearing us whine so much, S had enough of it and invited us to stay with him in his house for a few days.

So we packed our backs and scrambled down to his rustic wood and stone house built in traditional Kumaoni architecture in a village on a hillside populated with steep terraced rice fields. It was a lovely setting redolent with birdsong and barking dogs. Chilling on the wooden verandahs, we could glimpse distant birds on treetops with S’s binoculars. This also gave me an opportunity to have a conversation with the man.

A girl from Brazil had spent 25 days at his guest house, he said. She knew more about birds than he did. He felt envious because she truly loved the forest and the birds while he learnt about them only because it was his profession. Given a choice, he would have done something else. But there was nothing else to do. The school in his village barely gave him any education to compete for good jobs with people in big cities. Many of his childhood friends were in cities like Delhi and Mumbai looking for work but some came back failing to make money and wasted away their lives in the village. He was lucky enough to know someone who taught him to identify birds and make a bit of money doing it. If he wasn’t doing this, he would be in one of the labour markets in the towns and cities putting his body on the line.

There was nothing in the forest, he said. It might be romantic for people like us but for him, it was a means to an end. He would rather someone cut some of it down and build a resort or something so people like his friends who had failed to find work in urban India could find some sustenance.

So why didn’t he teach his friends how to identify birds and help them make a living out of this?

It wasn’t easy to learn how to do this, he said. He was taught from a very young age and it was a lot of hard work. And there were already many guides doing this work, more guides than there were tourists. Work was available only for 4 months a year. So there was no point in teaching hundreds of others. It would be easier for them to find a job as a driver or a woodcutter or pick kidajadi (magic herbs) for the Chinese.

Then something caught his eye and he galloped down the stairs in excitement. Perched on a dead trunk of a tree miles away was a Verditer Flycatcher. It was barely a dot in the distance but S could spot and identify it with his naked eye. This sighting spurred us on another venture up the forest in search of more avian life. We saw the Brown-fronted Woodpecker, Mistle Thrush, more Eurasian Jays, a Long Tail Broadbill and more flycatchers.

On the way back, we had to clamber up the steep terraced rice fields until we came to a spot where local village boys were playing cricket. A and I did not join because the games looked fairly serious and every time the ball went any distance, someone had to gallop down the rice terraces to fetch it. S looked quite the batsman and had no mercy for the fielders as he clobbered the bowling with flashy slogs to all parts of the mountains.

All that exertion made us terribly hungry. We waited patiently for S’s mother and sister to finish cooking meals for the family. It was simple fare, dal, roti, rice, a vegetable garnished with local herbs, but it was more wholesome and delectable than the expensive food we had at the tourist resort the night before.

There was nothing to do after dinner. A didn’t feel like taking out his laptop. I didn’t feel like going to sleep. So we sat quietly in the dark of the night outside, trembling in the chilly air and staring at a million stars above. The best things in life did come cheap, we thought.

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Palitana #5 – Obstacles

The soda shop guy told me the bus to Shatrunjaya stopped right beside his shop. I waited 15 minutes but when no bus came by, I hailed a rickshaw. The driver wanted 250 rs. for the 4 kms. No way, I said, I’ll wait for a bus even if it takes an hour. Hearing this, the man’s rate magically dropped to 40 Rs. His only condition was that he be allowed to pick up passengers. I congratulated myself on striking such a brilliant bargain and put it down to all the years of budget travel. 

But, as it turned out, all the years of budget travel experience didn’t prepare me for what followed. Because in about 10 minutes, just before the cranky old bridge before the market at the other end of the town, the rickshaw, which ordinarily had the capacity to house 4 people, was bursting at the seams with 10. It was so crammed that I traveled all the way with my left foot precariously dangling outside and other people resting their butts on my right thigh. 

Not everyone was going to Shatrunjaya. Most people were in for short rides. For 2 or 3 extra rupees, the driver was even kind enough to take a detour to take them exactly where they wanted to go. As soon as they got off, they would be replaced with more people. This prolonged my discomfort further because every time someone got off, I had to get off as well to let people out. The driver wouldn’t let me sit in the middle because I was too fat. So every time he had a new passenger, I had to get off to let them in. With the no. of steps I took to get in and off I could have walked all the way. I would have reached faster too because with all the stops and detours, it took us over an hour to traverse the 4 kms to Shatrunjaya. 

The final blow landed when the only other person in the rickshaw, an aged gentleman in a white kurta, got off near his dharamshala and paid only 10 rupees for the trip despite having embarked just a minute after I had. The driver, because he had to rub it in, now began to count the wads of cash he just earned and said I too had to get down because he can’t go any further. I began arguing, the mid day sun heating up my head and making my arguments blisteringly incoherent. But the man just sat there looking at me like I was speaking a foreign language. I looked at the time. It was already close to 2 o’clock and I had to hurry up if I was to have any chance of going to the temples. I also didn’t want to waste my time in a loud confrontation in a town I didn’t belong to. So I just coughed up the 40 Rs. and stormed away angrily. 

I walked the 500 meters to the entrance quickly. Here was a scene of much religious bustle. Jain monks, nuns and pilgrims dressed in white walked up and down with their wooden walking sticks. A mahout fed an elephant in a corner. A line of food and drink stalls served families of exhausted pilgrims who had just finished the pilgrimage. 

You weren’t allowed to wear footwear beyond the security barricades. So I left my slippers dutifully at the locker room and walked up to the security guard to be frisked. He pointed at my rucksack and asked what I was carrying. 

“A camera”, I said. 

“Why are you carrying a camera? Are you a journalist?” 

“No”, I said with a forced smile, “Just a tourist.” 

“Do you have a written permission?” 

“No.” 

“Then camera not allowed. Either get a permission from the office or keep it in the locker.” 

It wasn’t my day, I thought, and ran over to the “office”.

There were so many people crammed in the little I didn’t know who I was supposed to ask for a permit. Then I spotted an elderly man dressed in a white robe in a corner. 

“Sab theek hai? (Is everything all right?), he asked as soon as he approached him, “You look very tense.” 

“Yes, I need permission for a camera”, I said breathlessly. 

The man laughed. “Haha I thought something bad had happened. Are you a photographer?” 

“Yes.” 

“You work for a newspaper?” 

“No.” 

“A magazine?” 

No.” 

“Then how are you a photographer? You won’t get permission.

I was at my wit’s end and in my desperation to get a permit, told him about what a woeful day I had. I hoped that he would help me get one out of pity. Jain monks might be influential in these affairs I thought. The man listened patiently with a wide smile on his face and then said, “So you had a bad day. Maybe what you need are prayers and blessings, not pictures.” 

“Maybe”, I said, “But I would really love the permit. It will immediately make this a good day. Can you help me get one?” 

“Tell me one thing. What would you do with the pictures?” 

“I will keep them as memories and put them online for people to see.” 

“But there are already thousands of Palitana photos on the internet. Surely you can just look at them if you want to remember the place.” 

“Maybe yes. But these will be my own pictures.” 

“That’s where you’re wrong. They won’t be your pictures. Just because you own a camera and click the shutter doesn’t make those pictures yours. The pictures belong to God and Lord Mahavir and his followers over thousands of years who built this temple. All you would have done is climb up the stairs and taken a shot. There is no need for you to do that.” 

“I don’t know…” I said, tentatively. 

“Take my advice. You’re having a bad day. Go back to your hotel. Wake up early tomorrow morning before dawn and see the temples with true devotion. This is not a tourist place. It’s a pilgrimage. And I promise you, when you come back down, you’ll feel a lot better than you feel today.” 

I nodded my head resignedly and as I was about to leave he said, “But don’t be so sad. If all you want to do is take pictures, you can take your phone and take pictures with it. No one needs a permit for that.” 

“That’s good to know”, I said. 

“But what would actually help your soul is if you woke up early and saw the temples with your own eyes than the camera’s eyes. I can’t help you get a permit but I can help you see the temples. I will begin my walk up at 5 a.m. You’re free to join me if you want. I’ll be right here.” 

“I’ll try”, I said, “I usually go to sleep at 5. 

“Where are you staying?”, he asked. 

I told him. 

“Oh”, he said with a laugh, “Then no problem. I’ll make sure you wake up.” 

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Palitana #4 – Night Nerves and Haute Cuisine

The plan was to wake up before dawn, take a rickshaw to the pilgrim town, walk up the 3000 steps to the Jain temples of shatrunjaya in the cool morning air, walk back, do breakfast, take a rickshaw back to hotel and sleep. 

So I set an alarm for 4  a.m. on my phone and hit the sack. Then I began getting a strange sense of deja vu. I had done this before. That time I had to catch an early flight, the early stop at a railway station I had to get off, that wedding muhurat I had to attend before dawn, the trek to Everest base camp that began at 3 am. My mind began running through every single time I had set an alarm for the wee hours of the morning and as it ran through all the different times I had done so, one common element united them all. I had never gotten any sleep. 

And so it was this night as well. I kept tossing and turning expecting the alarm to ring thinking of completely random things, the time I had spoken rudely to a friend, Harsha Bhogle commentating on a cricket match between India and South Africa, the time I was too reticent to propose to a girlfriend only to end up losing her, the scene from Inside Llewyn Davis where the protagonist walks through a snow storm to meet a producer, the endless nights at Mehboob studio. And these thoughts seamlessly blended into each other as my subconscious waited for the clock to strike four. 

I was wide awake when the alarm rang and I put it off. When the alarm turned off, I suddenly began feeling sleepy. So I thought I would snooze for 10 minutes to get a power nap and then go about the business for the day. 

When I awoke, it was well past noon. I awoke only because someone was frantically ringing the door bell. When I opened the door to see who it was, it turned out to be the anxious looking manager. “Sorry sir”, he said, “Just checking to see if you’re okay. Are you all right? 

“Yes”, I said, wiping my groggy eyes. 

“Sorry for disturbing you”, he said, “You said you were going to the temples early morning but when we didn’t see you go out we got worried.” 

“I overslept”, I said, with a mixture of sadness and embarrassment, “I’ll get going now.” 

“It’s too hot”, he said, “Early mornings are the best.” 

“I know”, I said, angrily, “But I have to go when I can.” 

So I quickly finished taking a shower, packed my camera into my daypack and ran down to a restaurant for breakfast. 

Palitana town is the very opposite of a culinary paradise. I discovered this the hard way. There was a ramshackle dhaba style restaurant opposite the bus stand with dirt and mould  and oil stains covering every inch of the surface. I sat there, impatiently hailed the waiter to my table and said, “Kya milega?” 

He made a “what do I know” shrug in response. 

“Menu?”, I asked, to which he gave me a cold, deep stare as if I had asked him to get me a Kohinoor diamond. 

I saw another waiter delivering a plate of puris, oil dripping from the plate, and asked my friendly waiter to get me the same. 

I got sick the moment I looked at my plate. There was a pool of dark oil surrounding a slimy pickle and the puri smelt of oil that must have been recycled since the middle ages. But I had to eat and so I did. As soon as I had finished half a puri my hands were greased with such a lot of oil that I could have fried another puri with it. That’s what you get for bargain basement 10 Rs. breakfast in some towns I thought. 

Mercifully, there was a row of soda shops right next door and I helped myself to two icy glasses of masala lemon soda that somewhat alleviated the nausea. 

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Palitana #3 – Getting There

I had trawled the internet for hours in my guest house in Bhavnagar looking for hotels in Palitana. And, to my utmost surprise, I couldn’t find any. Only dharamsalas run by various Jain organizations offered any accommodation. 

There appeared to be unanimous consensus among both travelers and pilgrims that the only authentic way to experience the religious vibrations of this most ancient pilgrimage site was to stay in one of the many dharamsalas scattered around. 

But booking any of them beforehand proved to be impossible. I called up just about every dharamsala I could find online. Many of them had strict entry only for Jains, some allowed only members of a specific community to stay while others wouldn’t book a room in advance and asked me to just show up on the day to see if any were available. 

So I was genuinely fearful of getting stranded in the town with nowhere to stay. But as I voiced these fears loudly on the steps of the ancient stepwell at Sihore, Raju brushed them away with a swipe of the hand. He knew every dharamsala in town, he said, and knew many trustees as well. If they refuse to give me a room, he could threaten to never bring any guests to them ever again and that would put them in their place, he said, with much arrogance and swagger. 

It was dark by the time our grunting rickshaw grunted its way into the quiet street of the pilgrim town. Raju confidently marched into the first dharamsala we saw. He claimed it had the best rooms, better than many 5-star hotels in Gujarat. 

He asked me to stay in the rickshaw and went in to enquire about rooms. When he came back, he wore a sombre expression on his face. “No rooms”, he said dejectedly. 

But Raju wasn’t one to accept defeat so easily. “Don’t worry”, he said with a confident wave of the hand, “There are dozens of dharamsalas. I know all of them.” 

And so we went to a dozen dharamsalas where the same routine repeated with mounting dejection. If I wasn’t so tense and nervous, I might have compiled a handy guidebook of every dharamsala in the town and what their exterior facades and front managers looked like. 

Raju was an enterprising man but even his superior powers of confidence and swag failed to account for the fact that we had arrived in the middle of Kartik Poornima, when Jain pilgrims throng the town in their thousands. Every dharamsala had been taken over by the respective subsect or community they represented. 

Because of such a high proliferation of dharamsalas near the entrance to the long stairway that leads to the temples of Shatrunjaya, there were no hotels here. There was never a need for any. 

But Raju refused to give up. I could literally see a lightbulb flicker inside his head as he asked me to hop back into the rickshaw and drove me 3 kms away from the pilgrim town of Shatrunjaya to the main town of Palitana which wore a more urban look with grime and traffic and bus stands and train stations.  

Here he whizzed into a clean, modern concrete building which looked utterly desolate and deserted. It was the guest house run by Gujarat Tourism. The staff were chilling on chairs by the courtyard outside. They looked utterly flummoxed when they saw our rickshaw zoom in. 

Raju got out and had a word in Gujarati with the staff. Then he came up to me and said, “The whole hotel is empty. Take whichever room you want. There is so much space you can even play cricket.” 

I am usually extremely wary of staying in any place that’s entirely vacant because the rooms are likely to be either too shabby or too expensive. But these were desperate times. I did not want to go back to Bhavnagar after having traveled an entire day. 

My trepidations were put to rest as soon as I had a look at the rooms because they were all spacious, airy, had clean, functional toilets and were below my usual budget. It was among the best bargains I’d ever had. 

I went up to Raju to thank him for everything he’d done for me through the day and asked him why he didn’t come here earlier. Because this is far away from the temples. I’m sad that you can’t stay in a dharamsala. They have great atmosphere and serve the best food“, he said, “It’s entirely my fault. I should have known about the festival. This is where I take people when there are no rooms in the dharamsalas because no one usually stays here.” 

I gave him a few hundred rupees extra for all the trouble he took to show me places off the road and for engaging me in such friendly conversation throughout. But he refused to take it. I felt terrible about paying him just 500 Rs. rupees for what was effectively a guided tour through rural Gujarat.  

So I asked the cook at the hotel to make food for the both of us as we hadn’t eaten all day. Raju grudgingly agreed saying his wife wouldn’t be happy if she found out he had already eaten. 

As we were eating our thalis, Raju said, “You know where you’re going next?” 

“Yes”, I said, “I’m going to Diu.” 

He laughed and said he’d never been to Diu. “But you know where you should go? Velavadar. No one who comes to Bhavnagar should ever go without seeing Velavadar.” 

“It’s too expensive”, I said, “I’m alone and I don’t have a budget.” 

“The place is priceless. You see blackbucks, wolves, hyenas, grass taller than people. 

I said I would think about it and thanked him for the suggestion. 

But your rickshaw won’t be able to take me there.” 

“It won’t. But I can arrange a taxi for you. If I were you, I would go to Velavadar and then go back home. Because there is no place better.” 

“I’m sure your house is better. Where your wife and children are waiting for you.” 

“Yes, of course. That’s the best place”, he said with a big smile, “Maybe when I become successful at my dairy business and make it bigger, you can come visit me.” 

“I certainly would love to”, I said. 

It had been a long exhausting day with a lot of travel, some beauty and some frustration. But I had a lump in my throat as I said goodbye to my newest friend, Raju. 

 

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Stormy Exit from Khati

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You can’t trust anybody”, D said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But what?”, we said.

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

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

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

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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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