The Night Before Christmas Eve

… and in a gloomy, dense forest, alive with the sounds of crickets, bats and other creatures of the night, 10 city slickers sprawled around a sputtering fire on a sloping hillside enveloped by darkness and covered by a blanket of brilliant stars. There were three men – Teddy, Senthil, and Biju; and seven women – Chandrika, Bindu, Saishree, Renju, Meera, Neeja, and Mika. There were husbands and wives, mothers, and sons, colleagues, friends, and roommates.

There were four bottles containing alcoholic beverages, several plastic bags containing varieties of food, scattered knapsacks containing cameras and clothing, nine foam mats containing everything mentioned thus far, and ten sleeping bags, which were currently empty.

The forest made its usual nighttime sounds, but amongst the humans there was a temporary silence. Then Biju asked Mika: “Why do you do this? Why do you go trekking, walk for miles, sleep in the open? If it were up to me, I’d go to the nearest tea stall, have a cup of tea and then fall asleep under the sun.”

This was after Biju had proposed marriage to Sai, whom he had never met before that day, so nobody was taking anything he said very seriously. Besides, for everyone else enjoying the warmth of that brave orange flame on that almost-chilly evening, the answer was clear.

After struggling along a long, steep trail, staggering under the weight of a loaded knapsack, after limping along in the face of all obstacles, what could be better than being there, on that hilltop, under those stars, beside that fire, sipping on port wine, nibbling on chocolate cake (which Mika had made so well), listening to the forest and thinking of almost nothing at all? Few things could even come close.

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Kodachadri

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This trek, like every trek, had its idiosyncrasies. Despite the best-laid plans, our group of ten had left Bangalore a little after midnight the previous night. Delays accumulated along the way, the way delays do, and by the time all arrangements were made and everyone was ready to start walking, it was almost 2 p.m. Mika had made dire predictions of a five-hour walk, proclaiming that it would be nightfall before we reached the campsite; but in the end she was wrong. After much difficulty and by only just managing not to let Bindu and Chandrika turn around halfway and hobble back to the road, the stragglers of the party made it to camp by 5.30, which, everyone thought, was really not too bad.

There remained only the question of getting the luggage, because the bulk of the camping equipment had been sent ahead by the long road in a jeep. Mika, who had reached the campsite long before the others, had already gone ahead and ensured that the jeep had duly arrived at the top; but the “top” was a good 30-minute climb away from the campsite. Every able man and woman was coaxed into going up to lug the equipment down, while the truly tired members of the party stayed at the campsite to gather firewood.

By 6.30, it was all done, and the mats and sleeping bags had been arrayed around the bonfire, which had been persuaded to burn.

It continued to burn, as everyone ate, drank, and gradually slipped into peaceful slumber.

Everyone except Chandrika, who lay awake a long time, looking at the stars, listening to the bark of a wild animal and worrying about whether it would approach the campsite looking for a bite of something. Eventually, she could take it no longer and she awoke Bindu and Mika to find out whether they needed to do something about it. “Dog,” mumbled Mika sleepily and sank into deep sleep again, without losing a beat.

Bindu, Chandrika, and Biju had had enough exercise to last them a while, and decided the next morning to go straight to the top and find a jeep willing to take them back to town. Teddy, who had made it to the top the previous evening solely on the strength (psychological or otherwise) of Gatorade, was firmly resolved in going straight down, and as quick as he could make it. Neeja, who had been married to him only three months, would naturally accompany him. That left five of us, game to head for the top and beyond (for the “top” is not really the top, it is only the topmost point that can be accessed by road).

After sluggishly breakfasting and breaking camp, everyone set off at 8 a.m. We five deposited our loads at the top and by 10, we had reached the apex of the hill, where we found a small, ancient temple, a gusty breeze, and a pleasant view.

After that, it was all downhill.

We took our time on the descent and reached the road only a little before 4 p.m. There we found a stationary van and a scowling Teddy waiting impatiently. The former had been waiting since 12 noon, the latter since 10.45. He was in a foul mood and there was no pleasing him, so everyone meekly clambered into the vehicle, wiping cheerful smiles off their faces, and settled down for the long drive back to Bangalore.

But first, to find Bindu and co. who had headed for town, there to bathe, dress, and visit the temple. On reaching town, Teddy stalked off to have lunch, and the rest of us headed out to locate the temple trio. “Hopefully they’ve finished and are all ready to leave right away,” said Mika optimistically.

“I wouldn’t be at all surprised to find that they’ve been asleep all this time and are only just waking up now,” said Meera, more realistically.

And then they met Biju, who at once settled the matter and proved Meera to be entirely correct. “We left our clothes in the van,” Biju explained blithely. “We’ve been waiting for you guys to come back.”

Biju was hurriedly escorted to the van to recover the clothes, but the driver had gone for lunch.

When Teddy heard of the delay, it really did look as though homicide may occur, but nobody was sure who the victim was most likely to be. Ultimately, to everyone’s relief, it was Bindu, who stoutly refused to be cowed by Teddy’s murderous demeanour, but did promise to be mighty quick about the whole temple business so that everyone could leave by 6 p.m. This assurance was met with blatant skepticism by all, but, to everyone’s surprise, Bindu kept her word to within 10 minutes of the hour.

And so it ended, as treks always do, with a long, tedious drive in a highly uncomfortable vehicle in which everyone, surprisingly, manages to sleep much better than they did on the way out.

On Christmas day, at 5 a.m., we were home.

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