The next morning, I was up at 5.30 and outdoors by 6 – despite Ballu and his bed tea having made no appearance! It was a lovely morning. The clouds that had gathered the previous day had cleared up overnight and the mountains shone in subdued glory in the dawn light. But it was freezing cold! I clambered up a slope in front of the GMVN guest house and the ice crunched and crackled under foot. My fingers turned into icicles. Reluctantly, I went back indoors.
Usually on a trek, I sleep in a stripped down version of my day clothes. And if it’s cold enough, it might not even be all that much stripped down. On this trek, for the first time I changed into dedicated night clothes every night – and I repeated the whole ordeal for each child. Of course, this wasn’t a real trek – how can it be a real trek if you sleep in a room each night, attached bathroom and all? (Even if the attached bathroom had dysfunctional plumbing, or, sometimes, no plumbing at all.) Still, the problem with getting into night clothes each night was getting out of them each morning. It was a time-consuming process, with many layers involved in the operation – all for the sake of changing only the innermost layer, which nobody could see anyway. It was largely futile exercise, but I kept it up because it was a familiar routine for the kids.
It was past 7 by the time we reached the kitchen for breakfast. It was still cold, the clouds had gathered again and the kids were being as difficult as they could possibly be. We gulped down a few bites and started walking before 7.30. Getting across the snow was relatively quick and easy as it was still crisp and crunchy and we could step in existing foot prints without slipping too much. As soon as we had crossed the snow, crossed the bridge, and walked halfway across the meadow, the kids began to thaw out and perk up. By the time we reached the clump of trees, they were back to their normal, chirpy selves. Jackets came off and they started chattering. For the rest of the day, they hopped, skipped, and jumped along the path, often not even needing to hold our hands. For a long stretch of time, they went ahead with Deshraj and would have reached Seema well before us had he not had the sense to stop and wait for us at strategic points along the way. In the end, we all reached the village at 12.30 – just five hours after we’d started.
While the kids’ speed and stamina on the downhill was to be marveled at, certain aspects were less marvelous. For one thing, both the kids, but especially Tara, had no sense. They would hop, skip, and jump at the most inopportune moments, at places where a single wrong step would mean the end of life as we know it. And they would pass those places by without a second glance and without a thought – as casually as if they were walking on a broad expanse of field. Then, if we happened to be holding their hands, they would jump and leap off the boulders without pausing to see if we were following. It’s quite disconcerting to find that the child who was quietly holding your hand a moment ago is all of a sudden dangling from it mid-air, taking an impossible leap at precisely the same moment when you are gingerly stepping from one boulder to another. Several times, it was only by jamming my walking stick down quickly and firmly that various misadventures were averted.
Oh, yes, the walking sticks. Well, we still had one pair with us. We had intended to have a pair each, but the new pair got left at Bangalore airport, as you recall. As it turned out, one pair between the two of us was good enough – every few minutes, we’d have to exchange a walking stick for a child, as the kids kept demanding to hold this hand or that. As we came down the steep, dry, slippery slope towards the big bridge outside Seema, Amit had gone ahead with Tara and I was bringing up the rear with Mrini, Ballu close behind us. (Deshraj was already in the village by then.) The steep slope was hurting my knees, so I was limping along slowly, trying not to wince at each step. All of a sudden I slipped and Mrini and I both fell down. There was no danger – we only fell on the path and neither of us got hurt, though Mrini was understandably shaken up. Ballu was even more shaken up – he immediately took Mrini from me and would have carried her if he hadn’t been terrified of getting into trouble with Amit. So, sadly, I finished the last stretch of the descent on my own. It was the only place where I’d been deemed unsuitable to hold the kids’ hands. Perhaps it was for the best.