Thursday, April 29, 2010

Gadbad-- Part II

My guest writer, JN, continues. And of course you have to write Part III! :-)

Am sure ‘Gadbad part I’ would have given you a faint idea of what sort of situations you could fall in to on a wild adventure.

The adventure had only begun. Gadbad part II is set in the majestic Himalayas.

We are all ready in trekking gear, sunglasses, cargoes et all. One and a half minute uphill and we see D’s question mark reappear. What’s the trouble now? Our bags are heavy. Even the thickest of heads would have packed lighter. But enthu cutlets that both of us are… It was almost like the ancient chastisement of carrying rocks on your back to some uphill construction site. So one and half minute uphill, I see D flinging his stuff out. He was on a donation drive. He donated a sweatshirt to our guide’s friend and some more goodies here and there and felt lighter.

I was suddenly struck with an OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder) of throwing my sack like backpack on the road. Everytime it would hit the rocks with a thud, I would experience an unexplainable sense of pleasure of taking revenge against the sack. I did that a number of times until a sweet fragrance of detergent floated around my nose. Not the rhododendrons, it was Dove shampoo bottle that had broken and poured out and dampened all my goodies (small, shiny things) in the bag. We soiled our hands trying to clean it midway. It was a messy affair.

D, one of the intellectual authors that he is, had the courtesy to carry my very feminine side bag all the way helping me struggle with two heavy bags on a trek. Told you…I was extremely well planned, I also carried my tacky looking, ladies side bag along on the trek for some god-forsaken reason. Any way, these teeny weeny planning fiascos should be forgiven when you are on an adventure.

More was waiting. Imagine a misty cliff, a very narrow trail, you almost balance yourself not to fall in the abyss, the trail is dotted with mysterious pink and white flowers. The mist is thick, you are careful you don’t lose your team. In short it’s a romantic and dreamy trail. A little ahead you hear some noise. When you are in such a setting you tend think of nice things, may be it’s a pretty antelope or a red panda peeping through the bamboo shrubs. Not to forget that we were in the Singalila National Park so such thoughts were not misplaced.

As we approach, the mist clears slightly and guess who it is? It a paranoid looking adult cow looking FB in the eye. Wouldn’t move. It just stared. By then the romance flew and hearts started pacing. D had a bright idea. “Run uphill,” he shouted. According to him that’s the safest thing to do cos the cow might not be able to chase us uphill. So FB and I scrambled, holding the edge of stones, pulling a branch and some how park ourselves in a safe corner. Meanwhile the enlightened soul of D had changed its direction. Diverting our attention towards the uphill task, he was about to run back. Deceived and deserted, we looked on as the mad cow gave us more crazy looks. We somehow escaped a fatal cow attack that day.

More happened at Sandakphu from epileptic seizure-like shivering of all adventurers, to deciding who will accompany whom on toilet calls at night to disturbed bowel movements due to the towering altitude and repeated doses of dal and rice.

But the unforgettable moment was on day 2 in Sandakphu. All chirpy and beaming with inspiration to see the Junga and the Everest, trekked up to a tiny hamlet. Not even a hamlet actually, just a single hut that strangely had very wild ferocious dogs and baby yaks as pets. After yak petting and gulping down glass of yak milk, the much-inspired intellectual authors scribbled notes in their diaries while FB and I stretched ourselves on a bench. You should have seen the enthu on our faces. We were waiting to see the peaks. How many bored souls (office infrastructure) would have seen or been in this moment? So we stared on, waiting for one glimpse of the peak, waiting for the pall of mist to move. It never did. We came back to our hut.

And guess what happens the next day? Early in the morning we venture out to catch the peaks. We realize that the peaks were on the other side. The day before all day we waited for the glimpse on the wrong side. Now that is what I call anti-climax.

More gadbad happened while we climbed a rather steep cliff to catch a view of the peaks. Underdressed lot froze and almost succumbed. The co-adventurers tried PJs, fagging and yoga to deal with the chill.

More happened, FB alleged that Deepa and Anil were on mysterious drugs that gave them the enthu to run up the rough terrain.

We come back to Bagdogra.

Now here you need to listen carefully. Unlike what co-adventurers had alleged that my cool had deserted me, this driver of ours was one of those weirdos who can make you bang your head with anger. He thought he was cool, would make a passing remark on every comment that co-adventurers made and would insist on explaining aloud how things at the hotel can be uncomfortable if one white faced guy accompanied three girls. Now that made me imagine, punching his face hard, shoving the finger at his face and many others. So this sleazy dude takes us to the sleaziest looking hotels.

BTW, the adventure has only started. If the hostess of this blog and co-adventurer, Deepa allows, I will narrate ‘Gadbad part III’. How our lives changed as we tried fighting with the weirdest of circumstances, how the question mark on D’s face reaches magnitude, how team travelers have an expedition in North Bengal, fighting child soldiers, storms and a broken car. So come back tomorrow for more gadbads. Till then, Muah.


Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Gadbad-- Part I

(Picture of madness from the end of the trip)

For the first time in the existence of this blog, we have a guest writer, dear friend J, fellow adventurer and someone delightfully mad (that's why we are friends), writing about the utter chaos of the trip. Goooo JN!!

I take off from where my co-adventurer and the hostess of this blog Deepa Bhasthi left it.

Not that I am very keen about writing about the most extraordinary trip of my life but I thought you would love to know of the ‘gadbads’ that happen on an adventure.
I never knew that Murphy’s law was so realizable until I saw a big question mark on another co-adventurer 'D's face. This was day 1.
After a happy day in the sun, sweating in sultry Kolkata, sipping water down, smelly cold coffee at Coffee House and sharing some intellectual thoughts with the intellectual authors (couple of my co-adventurers) we are about to take off from Manipur Bhavan in Kolkata, when we realize that D and my bags are too heavy for a trek in the Himalayas. That was the first question mark on D's face that I saw. Well that was I can say a teeny, weeny, cute little start to Team Traveller’s adventures.
Things just fell in to place after that.
We reach Sealdah station, muggy weather, adventurers are running around to find the bogie. There we go -S 7. Hop in. Make yourself comfortable only to find out that you are on RAC. All this while am sure co-adventurers had imagined slipping in to the berth and taking a deep breath before the much awaited trip starts. Well, someone up there had other plans for us.
When I saw the teeny little question mark magnify a little on D’s face I realized that there was more to it than just sharing two berths with five people. A friend who had the potential to become our co-adventurer was missing. This friend of D's called T was to join us at Sealdah. However, he was still in the taxi somewhere when it was two minutes to departure. And yes there were no filmy slow motion entrances. We just realized we were taking off without T.
By then the question mark on D’s face was nice and clear.
Deepa and I on a lower berth, talking about idiosyncrasies of people and about the never ending problems with life in the plains and why we craved so much for the hills.
Umm… two people trying to sleep on a LB is not really a nice sight. Its quite volatile, you change positions to see where your bum can rest and you get some sleep.
In the middle of the night or say early morning, when we are trying to adjust on that little berth, I see a man going up and down, sometimes getting really close to berths. I think it’s a dream. A little later, this fat man. Well I saw his silhouette, seemed like a roundish, middle aged man who smartly came near our LB, wore a pair of Deepa’s pretty, flowery blue flip flops and walked off.

We looked on. Deepa, shaken by the tragedy kept asking how was that possible? How can a man be so impressed by a flipflop that in the desperation wears just one and disappears.
The next morning, strangely I went on my errand to find the flip-flop. And it was lying beside the berth of the most unassuming, well-behaved uncle.
By now you must be thinking these small gadbads are not adventure enough to talk about.
Well…wait till I tell you about how FB and I were chased by a mad cow on a misty cliff, how D deserted us, how we went in to tragic depression at a happening pub in Gangtok and more.
Beyond the most gorgeous fuchsia rhododendrons and the most startling view of the peaks, here is a sneak peek in to what goes behind a true adventure. More in ‘Gadbad part II’


The Adventures of the Junga Junkies-- Part III

After intense pain comes a stage of utter numbness. It is where you don’t really feel any fresh pain, just a numb acceptance. So too in life. So it was for us, five days into our adventure. FB grumbled that Anil and I must have been on steroids, for the pace at which we were walking. It was just really the stage after the intense pain.

Rimbik is this nice little place where J finally got to eat the momos she was so craving for. Wearied bones et all, we hated the thought of being in the plains again and got into a shared taxi where the rest of the passengers looked a little like hooligans, the driver included. Past Maneybhanjang, a sad goodbye to Anil, some money for his guitar and promises to keep in touch, we got down at Darjeeling, that mecca for most hill-bound tourists. I instantly hated it, way too commercial, crowded, with a jaded aura of having seen too many people tread its lanes.

Some Darjeeling tea bags for the family, a plate of bad chowmein later, we head to Bagdogra, 3 hours away, completely in the plains (ugh!) and the airport town for almost the entire North East. Some hotel hunting there and J losing her temper rather violently, we end up in this place that looks very suspiciously like the Hotel Decent from the Hindi movie Jab We Met! (For the uninitiated, it is a place where the lead pair land up in after missing a train. The hotel turns out to be the hub of other kinds of business which is later raided by the police…and the story goes forth)

So well, the hotel was rather creepy, but the only one in the town available. The next morning, just hours before the flight to Imphal, the first thing we hear is D murmuring, “we are in trouble” and right after, S calls, asking what the heck is happening. There has been an insurgency attack and we can’t fly. To cut a very long, chaotic story short, we change plans, convince S, get to NJP again, wait a day and then travel to Sikkim! Yes, talk about chaos there! But at least we drive past the Teesta river and there are the beautiful hills again!

Gangtok is another of those quaint little hill stations with pretty houses and pretty people. We all loved the place for how it was modern and yet had the tinge of the untouched to it. Lovely shops, great food, the perfect weather. Just that, that very day, there was a water crisis and the whole of the town, including the hotel we were in, was without water. But lets overlook that for now.

May I very highly recommend M G Marg? For those of us who have, in browsing the net and flipping through travel magazines with a loud sigh of longing, seen pictures of European towns, French villages and paved lanes of I-don’t-know-which-town, M G Marg is that. The little street takes a gentle bend and goes before the prettiest buildings. Pity I don’t have a picture that justifies the lovely street.

By then, we are in love with the weather and the street. Gangtok is good. Before long, we head to Cacao, a coffee place that we hung out the most in. Two very pretty waitresses; the boys predictably tried to work their charms on them! Now, you know I have impossibly high standards for judging coffee. That said, even I was impressed with how good the coffee was. Plus, at a distance, there was a peak (literally, rather!) of snow capped mountains! Quite obsessed with the mountains that we were, and still are, we couldn’t have asked for more than coffee, conversations and a view such as that.

Gangtok was of Pub 25, this interesting place where we threw in an impromptu surprise party for S, on his upcoming birthday. Gangtok was of shopping on M G Marg and at Lal Bazaar, long walks, of the Rumtek Monastery, one of the oldest in Asia, supposedly, of more coffee, some glitches.

Utter chaos again. We head to NJP, the flight back home is the next day, there aren’t any buses and we hire a very expensive cab to go to Kolkata. Now that was quite a journey, all of some ten hours, across the length of West Bengal, cramped up, sweaty; its boiling hot. We hate the plains.

Taking turns at trying to be comfortable, we drive along the highway. The music playing, old and new Hindi film hits, isn’t too bad. Lunch is at the dirtiest dhaba I have ever seen. No, I am not being snooty. If I may say so, living in hostels and travelling and doing the kind of things that I have done, I am quite accustomed to looking past the plates and the spoons and dirty nails of the waiter. But this place, called, I think, Paradise Hotel, was the filthiest, the kind frequented by truck drivers and others of their ilk. I just had to be cheeky and call ma to tell her this! She of course was suitably scandalized, as she is with most things I do! The food wasn’t too bad though.

Further up, there is trouble again. There has been a storm two days ago, uprooting whole bamboo groves, destroying crops and huts. One village is especially angry, apparently only some have been given compensation. They have taken it upon themselves to protest, by blocking traffic for miles on end. I ask J whether the police even function in these parts, she says these things are common. I am surprised at the grudged acceptance of the rest of the people at such atrocious behaviour.

Someone tells us there is another way through the village itself. We have gone a little ahead on narrow mud roads, past huts and little kids who gape, before we are stopped by a block of wood across the way. It feels like a scene out of Satyajit Ray’s movie, the village, the children and the abject poverty. I am reminded starkly of ‘Pather Panchali’, the poverty we see nothing like the poor as we are otherwise accustomed to seeing.

A young man refuses to let us move. By then dozens of children are milling around the car and peeping in. J tries talking, it doesn’t work, until there, and still further ahead, we all bring out our press cards. The media, I hear, is greatly respected in WB. It did not matter to them that we were journalists in distant Bangalore. A man inspects, with and then without his glasses, S and his id card.

A heaved sigh later, and much further ahead, we stop at Bharampur for dinner. It is new year’s day, Noboborsho, for Bengalis and J promises us an authentic Bengali meal. Everything is fine till we are about to get into the car again when suddenly, all the lights go off, bulbs burst, plastic covers and papers fly in the air and tin roofs seem like they will fly away in an instant. D is telling us, peppered generously with profanities, to get inside the car or that we would get hurt. We are quite shaken. J is the only one nonchalant. “Its just Kal Baisakhi, the black storm”, she explains, “happens all the time. Sometimes it get worse and there is a lot of damage.” Oookay!! There is rain, trees lashing against each other, roofs and even huts threatening to be taken away by the black wind. Quietly, J continues telling us of how she associates the Kal Baisakhi with her childhood, how these things are common. That girl! Our laughter is shaky.

Troubles don’t end there, though we get out of the Kal Baisakhi alive. The driver has driven nearly 100 kms without the headlights on, he is constantly nodding off and yet refuses to stop for tea, the car breaks down but finally, finally, we reach the airport at 5 am, wait another half a day, send off J home, see off D and surprises, the flight actually takes off too!

Life goes on now, though I still hate the plains and miss the mountains. If anything, the trip was the impetus to my obsession with the mountains. There are too many things I leave out from writing, some sentences sound better in the head. The trip was mission accomplished for me after dreaming and planning it for three years.

What it did was just wet the appetite for more mountains, more travel. And I tend to look back at all the glitches and call them instead, experiences. That trip, I shall probably always refer to it that way. That which made us, more us.

What it most importantly did was what I want to use Edmund Hillary’s words to put it best. “It is not the mountain we conquer but ourselves.”

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The Adventures of the Junga Junkies-- Part II

Maneybhanjang is where we met Anil Rai, who would become part of team travellers for the next three days. It is a little town, nice little houses, a Nepal police station, a Buddhist gompa, with a Shiva temple in the same compound, some shops, garish with packaged chips and snacks for the tourists, kids who strike the naughtiest poses for a picture and the first inkling of how cold it would get further on. I have always been of the opinion that walking about town is the only real way to discover a place; we do a lot of it.

It is mandatory for all groups to be accompanied by a guide for the entire trek. We walk through dark unlit streets, it is hardly 6 pm, and reach a tiny almost-cubicle, the mighty sounding ‘Highlander Guide & Porter Walfare Assotiation’ (sic) opposite a frontier check post where a jawan is trained to look at you suspiciously. The happy Dendup Bhutia helps assign a route; the several pictures of the gorgeous mountains further boost enthusiasm.

The guide charges aren’t too expensive, just Rs 350 per day. Anil, this little boy who was several years younger than all of us, and our guide, proved to be rather entertaining. Towards the end of the trek, he had even begun to crack sarcastic wise cracks; that’s what the company he was with did to him!

Early the next morning, after Reena, a pretty Nepalese girl at the place where we stayed, fussed after us, we headed out to Ghairibas, further into the Singalilla National Park through which most of the route we were to take crosses. The mode of transport, an aging Land Rover, seemingly from another century, suitably gave the bones their first beating. Lovely villages, more cute children, a red partridge, our first look at the beautiful magnolias and rhododendrons.

I shall always remember Ghairibas for the best wai-wai I have ever had, with vegetables and parsley. And for one of the cutest soldiers any of us had ever seen. And also for the first five minutes of the trek when we all decided that we would not complete it! The backpacks seemed too heavy, the legs wouldn’t move and for the first few kilometers, we were close to giving up, crying, cursing and turning back. But soon everything got acclimatized and it looked like we could stumble on; there was no longer the dignified activity of ‘walking’ or the more adventurous ‘trekking’ either.

On that day, at quickly rising altitudes, with wrongly packed backpacks and unaccustomed, unsteady gait, it did not seem so, but I say this now, that those 13 kms from Gharibans to Sandakphu, our destination, was one of the most beautiful routes I have ever been on. The time of the year that we had chosen was when all the flowers were in full bloom. Walking along paths that were lined with red, shocking pink rhododendrons, breathing in real oxygen (!), hills along the way and when you look back, a valley that is glorious with specks of bright coloured trees! Could I paint a picture? Could I write an ode? But isn’t beauty of that stature beyond the parentheses that paint or words or poetry seek to constraint them under? All we also took were lots of “mental screen shots”.

The route takes you through little pit stops for sweet tea, local bars and villages, all of 4-5 houses big, places where the India-Nepal border is so indistinguishable that you might have one foot in this and the other foot in the other country. Kalapokhri, where we have a piping hot lunch, is slightly bigger. I meet a man there who is keen to know whether families give dowry for marriage in my community. People speak Nepalese, Hindi for the tourists, and look nothing like the rest of the state of West Bengal that they are supposedly part of. There are welcoming fire hearths everywhere. What catches the eye is the cutlery, beautiful mugs for the tea; a subtle effect of the travel trade.

All along, Anil and I talk of his story. I remain fascinated with this little kid who has been a guide for five years now, who used to have a girlfriend and a guitar; the girlfriend is seeing an Army man now, a trusted friend did not return the guitar. He talks of politics, of his Nepalese father and Indian mother, of Gorkhaland, of trying to work in Jammu, of classroom antics, the band he plays with, life and his philosophies, baked well along the route he takes. But Anil is a whole other story, for some place else, another time.

The last half a mile to Sandakphu is the hardest ever. But finally we are there at about 5.30 pm, it is near dark already. That is unnerving at first, how 5 in the morning never seemed early, how 8 pm was almost midnight. We stay over at the government guest house, one that does not have a bathroom. There is just one Dada, to look after the entire place; he is nice, always smiling. So are all the people we see on the way, they smile a lot.

Sandakphu is COLD! And we the biggest idiots for having taken just one flimsy jacket each. Chang, made from millets and served in tall mugs and long straws and the rhododendron drink do not help. Neither do three very thick layers of blankets in cozy rooms. Those two days, we use up almost one year’s quota of profanities. The village itself isn’t all too pretty, there are just a lot of big buildings.

At 12,000 feet, there is no running water, no firewood can be collected if the forest officials are around and even in peak summer, the temperature hovers around 2-3 degree Celsius, every single supply has to come from nearly 50 kms away, none of that is pretty. Yet, if luck is good to you, Sandakphu offers one of the best views of the Himalayas where the mountains seem to unveil themselves from amidst the thickest ever clouds below your feet.

By then, our bones and muscles have given away. The air is thin, every breath is painful and the rib cage seems like it is about to burst. We wait an entire day, go to see yak babies (D terms them yakkies), drink some yak milk (rather salty) and recuperate a bit. The wind throw does not let.

The next morning though, Anil comes and knocks to say that the sun is rising. We stumble out and climb a steep rock. I like to think that the sharp breath I take is not merely due to the altitude. It is freezing and our hands look blue, like we will get frost bite in the next ten minutes. J decides to chant Om and believes it will make you feel warmer; I try, doesn’t help much. D smokes, as usual; maybe that might have helped.

In a few minutes, the clouds lazily part and below us is the majestic Kanchenjunga, the K2 and several other surrounding peaks. I want to cry; and not just for the cold. I know then why she is irresistible, why there are many who simply have to come back to see her again and again. Sadly, we see only a tiny bit of Everest. The clouds don’t part entirely. We promise ourselves that we will be back.

The trek is all downhill after that. Through the national park, it is another 12 kms to Gurdum, a village that is only accessible on foot or on a horse. Foolishness continues; all we have is one bottle of water for the five of us for the next 12 kms! Anil is near exasperated. More flowers, more lovely paths, more details of Anil’s story follows.

The last hill before Gurdum is painful, every step forward a torture, every muscle in the leg crying for mercy. But perseverance gets us there. The plan is to reach Sree Kola, another 4 kms ahead, where we are told a river runs through the village. It starts raining when we are nearing, I live out a bit of my fantasy of trekking in the Amazon forests in the rains, though it is slippery and dangerous!

Sree Kola is the prettiest village and pleasantly, not too cold. The best part is the first bath in three days of trekking, that too hot water! Ah be the joy!! The next morning, we quite give up after groaning at every step. Anil decides that we walk just a bit ahead and take a shared cab to Rimbik from where we will go to Darjeeling and further on.

Rimbik is warmer, there is hot food, flat roads and we already hate it. Missing the mountains syndrome begins right there.

In lesser words, I promise, the account of the rest of the journey ahead, the Bagdogra fiasco, Hotel Decent (of the Jab We Met fame), flirting in Sikkim and more mountains. Tomorrow. Please do check back for the last part (I hope).

Monday, April 26, 2010

The Adventures of the Junga Junkies-- Part I

I have been hitting backspace for some time now on this, unusual for me. Normally, the words tend to flow when I am thinking with passion about something, as I am about this trip. But, to use a big word, I remain flummoxed now about where to even begin, whether I should bore the hell out of you, and myself, by recounting a chronological account of where we boarded the flight/bus/taxi and so on or to reminiscence aloud the little anecdotes that made up what was an unusually interesting journey for all of us.

The facts first before I embark on the account:
The ten-day long journey was one that was almost a trip-of-a-lifetime sorts for the four of us, one that we pulled off with what now seems a concoction of much patience, some screaming, crazy planning and a lot of chance. There was J, D, B and me. The rough itinerary (not much planned, served just the way we like it) was to ‘do’ West Bengal, a trek along the Himalayas and then fly into Manipur, drop by into Burma and get back. The plan, but of course, kept trying to escape out of the window.

There were flowers and long winding paths, local bars and wine made from flowers, “edible kids” --quote, J. Then there was chaos and wearied bones, more appropriately a tortured body each. There were surprises and the most friendly people. Tiny villages. Litres of very sweet black tea, more wai-wai (a variety of noodles) than I ever want to see in my life again, too much rice and yellow dal, cute girls and cuter men. There was the burning sultry heat of Kolkata, then the cold of 12,000 feet, the almost frost bite. Adventure and chaos. More than anything else, there was the utter overwhelming beauty of the Himalayas. Now that I think of it, it feels rather surreal that we were actually there, looking at the Himalayas almost beneath our feet.

And so we left the plains, all too glad. Stopover first at Kolkata was a nightmare. But the city gave me better vibes than I felt in Mumbai, a place that I decided I hated the minute I set my eyes on it. Kolkata is a place I wish to return to, there is much to see there.

Well, despite the lack of time, we got a bit touristy and drove past the Victoria Memorial, saw the Howrah Bridge from a distance, rode on rickety yellow taxis, took the tram, ate sweets, over-ate a most delicious authentic Bengali lunch, took in a nice Cha Bar, admired College Street, saw too many hoardings of aging Shah Rukh Khan and his Kolkata Knight Riders team and ended becoming baked beans in the heat.

My favourite part though was visiting the India Coffee House, one place I have, for some reason, always thought of as the representation of the city. The coffee was just so, but the whole place, dark steps lined with red paan-stained walls, the bustle of College Street outside, ‘intellectuals’ debating probably Buddha’s Communism and the interesting paintings, was a beautiful thing to do in the city. Buddha, by the way, is the chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharya. I also hear the ICH is The place for a date.

New Jalpaigudi (NJP) is what connects the entire North East with the rest of the country, a good 10 hours away from Kolkata. The train journey from Sealdah station to NJP, which was to be our entry point too, was another crazy one, with confusion over seats, cramped space, a bogey of Kannada speaking families, transsexuals eyeing me and J strangely and rounds of giggles and gossip between us two.

Oh, then there was this drunken man who came near the seat J and I were sharing, put on one of my slippers and walked away. Just one of a nice blue and white pair that I bought because it was from a brand called Ginger! Dear J hunted it out though for me in the morning; the man had abandoned it in the next compartment. After the heat, welcoming lush green fields with jackets on and cups of hot, albeit bad tea was ‘thank-God’ expression-worthy.

NJP is one of those towns whose name people know only as a point from where to move on. It is otherwise inconsequential, except maybe for a tall, copper coloured statue of Tenzin Norgay when you exit the town.

Our destination was someplace where we could start the trek from. If you should choose to plan something similar, do be prepared to be met with slightly blank looks at mention of names of villages in the northern-most parts of the state. We did not know then that the names we had got from Junga junkies whose footprints had fallen on the route before ours were in Nepal. The term Junga junkies was coined by S, I better give him the credit, he was to join us for the second leg of the trip.

Budget travellers that we were, taxis proved to be the largest of our expenses. There are what are called shared cabs to get around, but they take longer, though would probably be more interesting, given the motley mix of other passengers.

Another long road trip took us up north. The most beautiful scenery, pepped with a plate of delicious momos, with postcard-worthy little houses, shocking violet flowers framing the sides and the cottages, a toy train that criss-crosses the roads all along and of course, our first look at hills! A collective sigh of relief that we were finally in the hills!

Prakash, a young boy, barely out of his teens, was our driver, and soon into the trip, he shyly passed on a diary, a scrap book that he had filled with pictures of actors, little poems neatly copied out on straight lines, SMS jokes, some numbers and notes of expenses, reminders for birthdays and anniversaries, pictures of some female stars cut out and other matters of typical teenage obsession. On one page was a little photograph of what we gathered was his girl friend, a young thing with plaited hair and fashionable sun glasses on. I ask him about her and he bitterly says, “I left her”. From the diary though and the reams of teenage angst, it did not seem so.

We pass lovely sounding towns and villages like Kurseong, Sonada with the little railway station that looked more like a toy set that the neighbourhood children would rather play with, Ghoom, Sukiapokri and then, past pine forests and people smartly using the railway track to drag pushcarts of groceries and children along, we reach Maneybhanjang forest village, in the district of Darjeeling, Gorkhaland, a quaint, sleepy little town.

Maneybhanjang is from where we are to leave to finally begin on the trek, the next morning.
On that and more, do come back here to read about tomorrow. :-)

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Team Travellers

I have come to realise that a journey is also about the anecdotes and the smaller stories that make up the entire episode; quite, I must say, like an anthology of sorts. I must also reiterate what I have for long known: that the true measure of my relationship and comfort level with another person needs to stand the test of travel. If I can travel with a person for more than a few days and not wish to abandon any attempts of continuing that friendship by the end of that trip, I know I have made a long term friend. I know, I am strange that way. But for me, it always works, for, I suppose, travel, especially in the absence of luxury and great comfort, brings forth a side of a person that is never otherwise at the fore.

Afterthought: it is incredibly hard to find a group that you can travel with. It could take years, and much irritation in the intervening travels, to find some you can talk to/have fun with/depend on/trust to save your life in danger/chill out/drink/discuss/explore/bear the hardships of travel with and at the end of all of the above, come back and still be able to plan the next trip! There is nothing like the wrong company to ruin a holiday.

I find that I need to travel with a person or people who are equally independent and yet think for the group. My travels have long moved beyond the traditional sight seeing. For me, a new place is about walking around its streets, those little paths, landing up at coffee shops, smiling at people, taking off sometimes by myself and talking to everyone who wishes to respond. And trust me, there aren’t many who will be thrilled about these things, which is why I come back to the right travellers.

I stay blessed in that quarter. My first travel companions have been my parents. They are one of the most chilled out people out there; I inherit the love for the outdoors and the unusual from them. I cannot say if its right or wrong, it is just the way I was brought up, to go out and explore. I could not wish for any greater gift for anyone, over the freedom of the mind, of the spirit. I continue to shock them, I must admit, such is the absurdity of my plans. But they have yet to stop me from discovering and learning my lessons, from making my own mistakes. I couldn’t thank them enough for that love and trust in my ability to look after myself. I realise all my confidence in myself springs from that.

For long, I have and continue to be my best travel companion. But given the fact that I would rather have company for longer travel, a new group has emerged, another recent discovery, so to speak. A bunch of friends, some new found, some I have known for a while now, have become a favourite too. All of us are absolutely crazy in many ways, temperamental, cranky, sarcastic, moody and I repeat, crazy, on our best days. But what keeps us in the boat to sanity is a love for travel, a passion for mountains and forests and the wild and dare I presume to say, tolerance of each other’s eccentricities, mutual respect and admiration for each other’s friendship. I hope for more adventures, more crazy times, better memories with them.

To explore. To dream. To get inspired. To discover. Can travel be for anything else? To travel is the only constant these days, wrote a friend, some time ago. So it has been off late. The mole on the soles of my left foot is acting up; I hear moles on your feet make you itchy to travel. I suppose I am itchy. It has been a week today since I got back from the Himalayan adventure and already a friend and I were making plans for the next trip.

The first paragraph of this post was supposed to be the intro for a travelogue. But like I joyfully discover every time I open a fresh page, I only have to let a bit too loose the reins of my imagination for the writing to take off in directions of its own. And so this became a post in itself. The travelogue will follow.

Meanwhile, here is to itchy feet, more travels, more adventures, more footprints. To my parents, to the friends: JN, SA, DS and FB. I look forward to making the most of my time on earth with that! :-)

Friday, April 23, 2010


Hello there, you dear people. I have all but disappeared, haven't I? My apologies. I hate doing this, not writing for long. I hate not having the pleasure of hitting the publish button, so much easier to me than a lot else.

It has been over a month now since I stopped working. And honestly, life has been largely good ever since. I miss the whole idea of waking up and going to a place to work, I miss the people and the things I associate with journalism, but I am also doing a lot of things I love a lot more. For one, I have been travelling like mad, home, elsewhere. I have been reading a lot, almost as much as in college. I have been attempting a lot of writing too, and I am glad that is coming along satisfactorily.

I just got back from a trekking trip to the Himalayas. Knowing my love for the mountains, you can imagine how it must have been. A travelogue is coming up shortly. Gosh, it was one chaotic trip, I must say! A crazy bunch of us did West Bengal and ended up going to Sikkim and getting some fantastic views of the mountains. There was torture to the body, long conversations, laughter, many stories, many lovely memories, new friends. But more on that in another post. Do check back tomorrow please for that.

As for other things in life, I am currently feeling awful for a few friends for the mess they are in; life can be (profanities here). I also feel awful about a friend for things that should not have happened with us. To you, I am really sorry for everything, though I know you will not believe me.

I have to lash out here at a few members of my darling family for being the people they have become. To you, Iet me be. I am not answerable to you, I don't see the need to explain my actions to you all either. So, do be modest and know that I may not even like you enough to tolerate your attempts at "advising" me. I am only pretending to be nice, only because my parents taught me to be so. A disclaimer: I meant this for some in the family alone.

Past that negativity, a lot of things have been keeping me occupied, like I said. I recommend Mohsin Hamid's The Reluctant Fundamentalist. I simply loved the way it is written. Pakistani literature is quite good, I must say.

I am waiting to watch The Japanese Wife, Aparna Sen's new movie. The story was a good one by Kunal Basu.

Yes, you are right, this is another of those random posts :-)

I am disabling comments on future posts on this blog. No reason, just a whim. If you should like to tell me something, please mail me instead, would appreciate that. There is a travelogue coming up tomorrow; yes I am tempting! LOL!

For now, I am getting inspired again. Travel, people, life is inspiring again and I see many stories around me. I couldn't ask for more.

Thursday, April 01, 2010

Cinema Paradiso

Small town joys, I tell you! For the fourth time yesterday, I watched Avatar, that much written about movie. This time, with ma and the best friend Raksha at the famous Cauvery Mahal in Madikeri.

It is one of two theatres in my town, the other being Basappa Theatre, which got DTS sound recently. Apparently, when Cauvery Mahal was first built, there was a competition organized in the town to select a name for it. Cauvery was but the obvious choice then, I suppose, during my grandpa’s time. That’s another story.

So I watched Avatar again. Great movie. It was unlike the other times when I watched it in multiplexes. The small town experience was quite something, one that I and the best friend giggled through.

I have to describe it in detail, bear with me please, like you all so kindly do. The theatre used to be one horrific place, with broken seats, gum stuck at the sides, below the seats and wafts of Charminar and beedis from everywhere (this was before the smoking in public ban and Mr Ambumani Ramadoss). There used be a few ceiling fans, making more noise rattling than actually dispensing some air. I don’t think the interiors have ever been re-painted. What I most remember is the little food counter below a flight of stairs that led to the theatre.

There is a story that I have to tell you about that. Those were the days of Gold Spot fizz drink, potato chips and slightly sour sweets, the late 1980s. My parents apparently used to take me to the pictures even when I was a kid. I would get fidgety when the lights turned off and would turn around and look at the people instead. It would fall on poor dad to indulge me when I wanted to have a soft drink. Fizz was not what I particularly loved and would end up finishing about half of the bottle and give it off to dad. The long corridor in front of the food stall would have me running up and down. Dad would thus miss out on most of the movie while amusing me.

The old man who used to man the stall is still there, he still looks the same and continues to be grumpy.

Over the years, I have watched several movies in these two places. Some movies that were very popular would be screened at both places. Since Madikeri would get just one print of the movie, the screening would be delayed by about 10 minutes in one theatre. As soon as one reel was over, an attendant would rush with the reel on a bicycle and screen it at the other place, a 5 minute walking distance.

Morning shows used to be dedicated to X rated movies, or once in a rare while, some English film. Raksha and I, for all the years that we have stayed friends, have never gone to watch a film by ourselves. Madikeri is not really a place where would do things like that.

What I like best about the two theatres is how every movie begins with the song “Kodagina Cauveryyyy” from the Kannada movie ‘Sharapanjara’, another masterpiece by Puttana Kanagal. As the song plays in the backdrop, the screen would be lit dimly with ads from the local saree shops, a no-smoking caution and others. The film would begin scratchily, it did so yesterday too. The light is dim, the sound quality is hardly great and there is a tendency for the screen to go completely blank sometimes. That’s when the hooting and whistles begin.

The hooting is another of those things so quintessentially Madikeri theatre. Even yesterday when the action sequences were on, or for no rhyme or reason, there were people screeching and whistling. You can only imagine then how it would be at a Kannada movie starring the latest hero, whatever his name might be.

The tickets are a mere Rs 30 for a balcony seat!! Living in a city, I cannot imagine being able to watch a movie at that price! In those swanky multiplexes, you can’t even get a Coke for that price. I remember, my parents, the other best friend Manju and I had gone to watch that famous Kannada film Mungaru Male. The movie had just released and there was such a huge crowd that we ended up in the ground level seats, broken chairs, no chairs, no cushioning, more hooting and screaming…whoosh…that was quite an experience!

Sometimes, it is the whole experience that makes a moment all the more memorable, isn’t it? Like the great meals that I had written about, it is not just about the food, but the whole of the moment that makes it a beautiful memory. Life is made up of hundreds of such moments, it is the bouquet of these that make a life good, me thinks.

The small town experience is something that never fails to make me fall in love again and again with my Madikeri. This time too, the weather was perfect, just a tad cold in the late evenings, slightly windy, a shiny grey. The air was pure, as always. Well, what can I say, I have written about this several times: Madikeri is where I fall in love with the town, the people, the experiences, the whole moments of it, over and over again. If heaven were to be a place on earth, it would be here, here, here.

As for Avatar, it is a great movie. I watched 'Hurt Locker' too. For the life of me, I don’t see why it won so many Oscars. But then, what’s the award got to do with good entertaining cinema anyways?