Har ki Dun Unabridged – The End

May 8, 2011

The next day was only a little more tedious and a little longer. I’ve noticed before that he last day of a trek is always difficult. All the excitement and energy is gone and all that is left is to trudge along morosely, leaving the best of the views behind and heading towards the hot and dusty plains and all the hassles that come along with them. The kids were irritable and the walk, despite being mostly downhill, was interminable. My knees were shouting out loud at each downhill stretch. Puffed rice had never seemed less appetizing. We had left Seema a little before 8 and when we finally reached Taluka, it was exactly 1.30. Our car was waiting for us, so we spent just five minutes bidding adieu to Deshraj, the horse man, and the horses, and then we were on our way.

The horse that fought a cheetah (and lived)

By 5 p.m., after a fairly uneventful drive, we were in Purola. The clouds had gathered in earnest by now and there was no electricity and no cellphone coverage. It rained for a while. We went out for dinner – Ballu had closed the kitchen and either finished or given away the last of the provisions. Late in the evening, electricity came and I had the luxury of a hot bath and a shampoo just before going to bed – six whole days since my last bath. The kids were asleep by then, so they had to wait one more day.

It had been a good trek – an unbelievable, amazing trek in many ways. Neither of us had expected the kids to be able to walk the whole way, so we were both blown away by the fact that they not only did it, but had energy to spare. Even the locals were impressed by that – and that’s saying a lot. It was also good to see (yet again) how easy-going they were. They put up with early mornings, cold evenings, cramped rooms, and a whole new set of circumstances and experiences with very few complaints and very rare tears. At Osla, we encountered two mountain dogs. Mountain dogs are huge. These two looked like a cross between a German Shepherd dog and a St Bernard – huge, square, with a head like a lion and a shaggy coat like a bear. They came and crowded around me while I was eating lunch. You’d think the kids would be scared. Tara was – she’s got some sense, after all; Mrini wasn’t. When she saw that the dogs were non-aggressive, she came and sat next to me and patted them! And these are strange dogs whose heads are bigger than hers, who are about chest high compared to her, and who, if they wanted to, could easily knock her flat with a casual swat of one paw! That girl has no sense but a ton of courage! And then, of course, she also happily got on to a horse and was led around for a few minutes. Afterward she patted him, too.

The End

The next day Ballu woke us up at 5 a.m. as usual. The kids had a slice each of bread and jam thrust down their throats at 6, and by 7 we were in the car on the way to Dehradun. Ballu had a bus to catch and he was determined to catch it. In Dehradun, we checked into a nice hotel with a fantastic bathroom. I didn’t even have to say anything, Mrini and Tara were the ones to say, “what a lovely bathroom, see how clean it is!” That proves it: trekking is good for the soul. It helps you appreciate things that you might otherwise have taken for granted.

We all spent the weekend in Delhi. For me, the two quick days I spent were perfect – just the right combination of socializing, good food, and late sleeping hours to be relaxing, not exhausting. Then I left the better half and the kids in Delhi to enjoy the family scene for a couple of extra days while I headed back to Bangalore to get back to work. It was lovely to get back to Bangalore – I realized afresh just how much I love this city, even with its maniacal traffic.

Oh and the long-lost walking sticks? I got them back at Bangalore airport, after hanging around and waiting for half an hour. It’s a pity that we didn’t get around to using them on this trek. But there’s bound to be a next time.

Har ki Dun Unabridged – Part 5

May 7, 2011

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.

Glacial stream at Har ki Dun

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.

Mrini at Osla

Har ki Dun Unabridged – Part 4

May 6, 2011

Having walked two days, on the third day we rested. We stayed in the dirty, windowless room with the smelly quilts and staunchly waved away Ballu’s attempts to rouse us with bed tea at 5.30. Actually, if Ballu himself had come to the room, we might not have stood any chance of success, but since he sent his second-in-command, Deshraj, we had no trouble. At last, around 7 a.m., I accepted the tea and, since Amit showed no signs of raising himself to the extent of being able to swallow anything, I drank both cups. (In the mountains, if you haven’t got diarrhoea, you take your laxative any way you can.)

At Har ki Dun

When we finally got out of the room at 7.30-ish, we found Ballu busy rolling out puris to eat with steaming hot chhole (chana; chickpeas). The kids wolfed down eight puris between the two of them, while Amit said he single-handedly demolished 11. I got stale rice. (Sob.)

At 9.30, we went for a “picnic”. We carried the camera, a bottle of water, a small packet of cashews and raisins, and a big plastic bag full of dirty laundry. I’d mentioned to the kids that we could wash our clothes in the stream at Har ki Dun and for some reason this idea caught Tara’s fancy. She was really looking forward to it! Since there was still a lot of snow, going down to the meadow we had come from didn’t look like too much fun and going further up looked even less inviting. So we went down to the valley behind – where a small stream curved around the foot of the Swargarohini massif and disappeared in the direction of the Jaundhar glacier. The glacier is only another 12-13 km from here, we were told airily. That was 12-13 km more than I intended to walk, and in the wrong direction to boot.

We descended the slope behind our room and picked our way down to the water. We all took off our shoes and socks and eventually the kids took off their pants as well – I worried about sunburn, but the way they were managing to get their pants wet in the river, I’d have to worry about pneumonia soon. We all washed clothes in the stream. Unfortunately, washing clothes in the river is not as easy as you might think. Where the water is fast and deep, it too cold to stand in. Where it’s shallow enough to keep your feet dry, it’s full of silt. Tara was dipping a sock in the water when it slipped out of her hand and started to float downstream. Only with some good luck did I manage to catch it before it drifted lazily away. “Some of our clothes are going to reach Osla before us,” observed Amit.

Rock Climbing at Har ki Dun

Rock Climbing at Har ki Dun

The kids enthusiastically silted up their laundry; I tried to de-silt it and rinse it clean. Amit spread it out on the grass to dry, so that it picked up all sorts of things; I tried to rinse it clean again and then lugged it all the way to a far off rock to dry. Then the kids had a blast playing with stones and sand and water and we had a blast watching them. They tried their hands (and feet) at rock climbing and Amit stood guard behind to ensure they didn’t fly off the top of the rock and land in the roaring river behind. We munched the dry fruit and drank the water and I showed them how to fill water from a stream. They were so delighted because they could empty the bottle out into the stream and fill it up again and nobody would scold them for wasting water!

We went back up the thorny hillside for lunch and after lunch the kids were persuaded to take a nap. Amit went to the GMVN guest house to see if their room was any better than our current room with the smelly quilts; we had a reservation there for that night. He discovered it was much better – larger, cleaner, and with a nice window and a nicer fireplace that the staff promised to light a fire in at night. He also discovered a back route between the GMVN guest house and the Forest guest house. When the girls woke up from their nap, we packed everything and moved. Ballu refused to follow – packing the kitchen was simply not worth the effort, he said. So we came back to the Forest guest house for dinner. By the time we went back to our palatial lodgings at the GMVN guest house, it was dark. Naturally, we lost our way and were stumbling around in a maze of boulders and snow when the staff from the GMVN guest house sent out a search and rescue mission for us. By 8 p.m. we were in our room, the kids were in bed, the fire was blazing and the quilts were mercifully odorless. Of course, when the fire ran out of wood around 9 p.m. the room was horribly cold – but it seemed a small price to pay.

Har ki Dun Unabridged – Part 3

May 5, 2011

Ballu woke us with bed tea from the cafeteria at 5.30. He could be heartless about it – by his standards, it was already late. We dressed and woke and dressed the kids and were at the cafeteria for breakfast by 7 a.m. “You want rice for breakfast?” they asked, raising eyebrows at me. “Yes, please,” I said. We’d told them so already the previous evening. It turned out that they would not make rice for one person – not worth the effort. So I got last evening’s rice with last evening’s rajma and pretty foul it was too.

Bridge outside Taluka

Unabridged? Who says it's unabridged? It's all about bridges!

We started walking at 7.45 and by 3.45 we’d reached – a good eight hours. Not all good, actually. We took innumerable short breaks to keep the kids entertained and one 45-minute break for lunch. We’d carried packed rotis and boiled eggs for the kids to munch on along the way. Around noon, we stopped at a dhaba for fresh omelettes and hot tea. By that time, we were told that we’d done 10 km already. With only another 3-4 km to go, we were all in good spirits after lunch. The walk was easy enough, with a good path, the river running along far below, green water turning to frothy white when it met enormous rocks. Around us rose green hills and in the distance snow-capped peaks were already visible. The kids finally agreed to walk with the porter, Deshraj Rana. He walked at top speed and the girl accompanying him scrambled to keep pace, while the girl who walked with us grumbled and complained. In the end Mrini and Deshraj and Amit reached ahead of me, Tara, and Ballu. Mrini was up in the room, sitting in the window and waving and shouting to us when we walked in to the village.

Even with 13 km under their belts, the kids were energetic and active the rest of the day. There’d been a couple of times along the way when I’d thought they were really tired and couldn’t go on, but Amit thought they had energy enough and to spare and in the end he was right. All they needed was a bit of distraction, a bit of a bribe and they’d be good for another hour or two.

Everyone was impressed. “But tomorrow there’s a continuous climb,” Deshraj and Ballu warned us. “Do you think they can make it tomorrow as well?

Bridge at Seema

Bridge at Seema

Expecting a long day, we planned to leave the guest house at Seema by 7 a.m., so naturally it was 7.25 by the time we got going. Ballu, Deshraj, and the horses were still getting organized, so we set off on our own. The path led out of the village and across an imposing metal bridge suspended far above the raging river. At the other side, there was a steep zigzag path going straight up the hill to a small bridge perched halfway up. By 8 a.m. we were at the small bridge. From there, the path leveled out and the ascent was more reasonable after that. In a few places – three or four stretches, maybe – it was steep, but each steep stretch was quite short so it was never completely exhausting the way it is when you are climbing up towards a high pass. For a while, we walked across terraced fields, then the path curved along the edge of the hill, occasionally descending towards the river but never going right down to it. We reached the halfway point by 10.30, which was encouraging, and around noon we reached a pretty waterfall where we stopped for lunch. Only another 4-5 km to go, they said.

We started the final ascent, about 2 km, around 2 p.m. By 2.30 or so, we had reached the last clump of trees and, crossing it, found ourselves in a beautiful green meadow with the Forest and GMVN guest houses visible a little ahead. We’d also encountered the first few patches of snow. Across the river from the green meadow, everything was covered in pristine white. It was enchanting – but at 3 p.m. it was a bloody pain to walk through. At every step, I sank in up to mid-calf level. The kids, tired and cranky, struggled along holding our hands. They didn’t sink in as much as we did, of course, but when the hand you’re holding suddenly drops by a foot or so, you are liable to lose your balance. It was slow going, and we reached the first of the two guest houses by 3.15 p.m.


Waterfall - view from our lunch room

We didn’t actually have a reservation for this night. When we’d booked on the Net, we hadn’t found any rooms available. Now that we were here, I could understand why. The GMVN guest house had one room and one 11-bed dorm. The Forest guest house, which we hadn’t even tried to book, had one proper room and some empty cabins with no bathrooms. An 18-member team from New Zealand had booked two nights here. There was already a 40-member party from Pune in occupation. They former had left a day early, but apparently the latter had taken over any rooms they might have vacated. And a three-member party had come up with us and taken the only proper room the Forest guest house had to offer.

Still, we had two small children. I don’t know who was responsible for it, but by the time we reached, someone had obtained a room for us in the Forest guest house. It was apparently the chowkidar’s room. It must have been 8’x8’ sq. ft. with a 6’x6’ bed in it. There wasn’t a lot of room to move around. What’s worse, the room had no window – the one window it appeared to have had at some point had inexplicably been nailed shut. It was dark, dingy, dank, cramped, and depressing. At some point, I stepped on the buckle of the waist strap of the biggest backpack and it cracked. Fantastic – how were we to carry it now?

At Har ki Dun

Sitting outside the room at Har ki Dun. If Tara had fallen the other side, it would not have been so nice.

The kids found snow everywhere, much to their delight, and were just beginning to think about what interesting sculptures they could make with it, when they discovered that dipping your hands in it for an extended period of time made them seriously cold. After that they perched on the steps outside the room and kept themselves busy with their colouring books until a sudden blast of wind came along and knocked Tara to the ground. Luckily she fell on the safe side of the steps and cried mostly due to the ignominy of it – nothing hurts as much as a bruised ego. Despite everything they showed no signs of tiredness until dinner time, when suddenly they found themselves too tired to eat. Deshraj very sweetly found the two least broken of a set of wooden chairs with torn cane seats and the two least broken of some small wooden tables — one of which had only three legs and could therefore be counted on to topple over at inopportune moments – which he set up for the girls to eat dinner at. They were persuaded to take a few mouthfuls and then had to be put to bed presto.

Ballu had cajoled the caretaker give up his kitchen – I wouldn’t be surprised if he’d used the kids to justify his need. The kitchen was in a separate building from the rooms. You had to cross a short expanse of snow to reach it, so the kids were soon experts at walking on snow. It was a tiny, triangular space, with a neat space for a wood-fired chuhla and very little space for anything else. The chuhla was most useful for Ballu – there was always a huge saucepan of water being warmed on it, while the kerosene stove was used for actual cooking. Running water was supplied by a pipe just outside the kitchen. It doubtless originated from the clever diversion of a nearby stream. Ballu was delighted with this convenience, which was – for him – almost an unthinkable luxury. In short order, we had tea, Maggi, khichadi (to make up for the lunch I’d missed), coffee, and finally dinner by 7 p.m.

What about the poor caretaker, done out of his room and his kitchen? He squeezed in with someone else in another room next to the kitchen and happily ate whatever Ballu dished up.

And, he put his quilts at our disposal.

The quilts provided another whole dimension to the small dark room – an olfactory dimension; an olfactory assault to be precise. To put it bluntly, they were stinking to high heaven. Up until this point, while the bed linen did not look exactly pristine in any of the guest houses, we had at least been able to close our eyes and get into bed. Here, with the unsavoury fragrance wafting from the quilts and no windows to provide the slightest modicum of relief, I discovered that even Amit had a limit to his tolerance. We unrolled our new, inflatable sleeping mats and unfolded our comfortable old sleeping bags. Then, while looking away and holding our noses with one hand, we reluctantly spread the quilts on top, keeping them as far away from the pillows as possible. By the time we got to bed at night, it was cold. I wondered which was better – dying of asphyxiation or freezing to death. In the end, the need to keep warm – and the inexorable maternal need to keep the kids warm – won out and the quilt slowly crept up towards my chin. Despite which, I managed to sleep. It wasn’t the most refreshing sleep, but at close to 12,000 ft and close to freezing point, you can’t ask for much.

And if you’re thinking surely I must be exaggerating, how much can a quilt smell anyway, let me put it this way: Add up the smells of many different bodies that have not been bathed for a number of days, snuggling up cosily under a 15-kilo load of cotton and perspiring slightly; add in a good helping of sweaty feet still dressed in sweaty socks; and top it off with a dash of beedi-infested clothing, in a dark, warm, and airless room… Need I say more?

Har ki Dun Unabridged – Part 2

May 4, 2011

The next morning, we woke up the kids at the Dehradun railway station. The previous night, after reaching Delhi we’d gone to Amit’s brother’s house for dinner, then driven to the railway station. Of course, while driving towards the Old Delhi railway station Amit just happened to check the ticket and discovered that our train actually departed from the New Delhi Railway Station. Such minor glitches we take in our stride, especially when Old Delhi is much further away, so heading to New Delhi instead only means we have a little extra time to kill. The train left at midnight, so by 5.30 a.m. we’d all got significantly less than six hours of sleep.

The Irrepressible, Indomitable, Indefatigable Ballu

The Irrepressible, Indomitable, Indefatigable Ballu

The first task of the day was to locate Ballu – our cook, philosopher, and guide, who has rescued both of us from fairly dire circumstances at various times and places. After a happy reunion at the railway station, we negotiated for a taxi and started on the long drive to Purola. Normally, the drive from Dehradun to Sankhri can be done in a day, but with two small kids I’d decided that wisdom lay in keeping the drives short. On the first day we drove about 5 hours to Purola and stopped for the night. The next day we drove two hours to Sankhri, then went on for another 40 minutes on a terribly bad road to cover the 10 km to Taluka. This last stretch is normally part of the trek and in fact it would be much less uncomfortable and detrimental to the anatomy to walk it, but we’d decided to keep the actual walking as short as possible. So we banged and crashed along on the trekking route, the driver happy with a mere 500 bucks extra while I wondered how many parts of the vehicle we were losing along the way. The kids had been thoroughly car sick on the drive from Dehradun to Purola the first day (doubtless the oily aloo parantha for breakfast mid-way didn’t help) but on the second day, despite the car-rattling, bone-shattering nature of the drive, they were fine.

Thorns on the way to Har ki Dun

We had booked into GMVN (Garhwal Mandal Vikas Nigam) guest houses all the way. These are fairly dreary lodges, dank, crumbling and far from luxurious. The season had not officially started yet, so caretakers had to be roused out of their winter homes and persuaded to unlock doors and make provision for water. At Purola there was electricity, but not at Taluka. The kitchen was not operational at either place yet, so we ate at nearby “hotels” – and what that word means in this context you really have to see, smell, and taste to comprehend.

At Purola, Ballu and I shopped for provisions while the kids and Amit slept. As always, we started our shopping expedition with the most critical element first – kerosene. We scoured the town and found at least half a dozen outlets for kerosene, but at each place, the grizzled, crotchety old men shook their head resolutely and denied us our modest request for five litres of the precious blue fuel. We had walked ourselves almost out of town altogether before one old man took pity on us and poured it into our jerkin. Relieved, we walked back towards the guest house and at the last shop before the climb up to our rooms, we shopped for more mundane things – rice, dal, atta, cooking oil, salt, candles, matches and all that sort of thing. It cost a little under 1500 and would feed all of us for four days. At Taluka, we spent close to 800 just on lunch, dinner, breakfast and a few installments of tea.

But we had two speckled brown chickens pecking for grain under our feet as we ate and I suppose there’s always a premium on live entertainment.

Har ki Dun Unabridged – Part 1

May 3, 2011

“Where are you? They’re holding the flight for you.”

Har ki dun

Har ki Dun valley with Swargarohini peak at the back

In our many, many journeys together, it was the first time I’d had the opportunity to say such a thing to Amit. Our departure so far had been no more dramatic than usual. Despite the voluminous and too numerous backpacks and hand baggage, we left home only 15 minutes later than scheduled – about par for the course. Leaving home at 3.15 p.m. for a 5 p.m. flight is cutting it fine, of course, but when we asked our driver if we could possibly reach the airport by 4 p.m., he immediately said, very cheerfully, “Impossible.” After letting us stew for a few minutes, he added, “But I’ll try my best.”

Our airline, Indigo, was reputed to be one of the most punctual airlines. “Unfortunately, it is the worst airline,” said our driver. “With any other airline, you might expect a few minutes delay.”

Luckily, we didn’t encounter any detours or traffic jams on the way to seal our fate. It did rain a bit, but not enough to delay us significantly, far less to delay our flight. We had made it to the general vicinity of the airport terminal by 4.05 and were just beginning to breathe a sigh of relief when we got stuck behind several other taxis trying to get past a barrier into the drop-off lane. The barrier, it seemed, wasn’t working properly. At last, at 4.07, two cars in front of us got through. Our turn. The barrier got stuck again. We spent another two frantic minutes waiting for it to comply. If it had not been for the mountains of luggage we were ferrying, we might have leapt out of the car there and then. As it was, by the time we rolled to a stop outside the terminal, it was 4.10. Indigo is very firm about closing check-in 45 minutes prior to ETD. Amit yanked a couple of big sacks out of the car and raced off towards the door, leaving me to manage the rest of the baggage, the kids, and the payment to the driver. I stumbled along, tripping over stray kids and straps of backpacks and got to the terminal building and flashed my e-ticket at the security guys. They asked for ID, peered at it, and wanted to know which name on the ticket it corresponded to. Shit.

Har ki Dun

View from the top of Har ki Dun looking back the way we came

Amit was at the counter when I got there. There was a long queue, but clearly he’d jumped it. Good – there are privileges to being late. Once we were checked-in, we went through security without any great stress. Amit was carrying the walking sticks open, as part of carry-on baggage – he was worried that the sharp tips would rip the backpacks if we packed them in. Security wasn’t happy with the walking sticks, so they sent him back. I took the kids and went to the boarding gate. It was strangely quiet and deserted. That’s when I heard the announcement: “This is the last and final boarding call for flight…” Good Lord! They meant it – it really was the last and final call! That’s why it was so empty.

The airline staff were looking at me expectantly, as I set my camera bag down on a chair and the kids ran around playfully. At last they inquired politely which flight I was on. I explained.

“They’ve sent him back to counters?” they asked, eyes widening, voices rising. “Counters is closed.”

“Counters are closed,” I corrected, mentally. They were urgently whispering into mobile phones and walkie-talkies. “Customer for Delhi. Send him through quickly.” I expected to see Amit being marched in by two strong men. That’s when I called him on his mobile and uttered those memorable words: “They’re holding the flight for you.” I could hear him repeating this to someone, trying to put the pressure on and get some mileage out of it. A few minutes later, I saw him rush through security. I picked up my camera bag and rounded up the kids and we were hurriedly waved through on to a bus and then on to the plane – the last people to board. That’s when Amit told me – the sticks didn’t make it. Pressure tactics didn’t work. The only mileage he got was from actually being on the flight himself.

Damn! We spent 2 k on those walking sticks. Besides, I’ve never been so late that I’ve had to relinquish luggage at the airport. This trip seemed to be full of all kinds of firsts and we hadn’t even got off the ground yet.

…Aaaaaaaaand We’re Back!

April 30, 2011

The short story is that the trek was a success. We all managed to walk the distance and we all pretty much enjoyed it. The kids, of course, fussed and cribbed at various points, especially on the first two days which were all uohill. If it had been up to me, I might have relented and allowed them to be carried. Amit, in typical military style, insisted that they were not really tired yet and in the end he was right. We kept them entertained with stories and they kept walking and when we finally reached around 3.30, they assured me they didn’t want to sleep and spent the rest of the day running around as if they hadn’t done anything extra that day. Nor did they seem to have any stiffness the next day. So in the end they managed the full 27 km uphill and 27 km back without any visible stress. On the last day of walking, we kept telling the kids that there would be a taxi waiting for us at the end of the walk, to take us to Purola, so they only had to walk to the taxi. The next day, we had to take a taxi to Dehradun and Mrini woke up in the morning and asked me matter-of-factly, “Do I have to walk to the taxi today?”

Kids adjust quickly for sure. They got only mild tummy upsets from the unfiltered water from streams, full of visible insoluble things. They got only mild runny noses from changes in weather that ranged from t-shirt temperature to snow on the ground and frost in the morning temperature. And apart from that, they tolerated a new venue each day, dank, dingy rooms, unsanitary indoor and exposed outdoor toilets, and various other departures from the norm with relative calm. They got tired and end-tethered every day around 7, but that’s hardly surprising, given everything. In short, they were champions and both of us were impressed by how well they did.

I did pretty well too, considering. As treks go, this was not a difficult one. For Amit, it was a walk in the park and even for me it was in no way challenging. But this was a good thing, because it meant I could focus on the kids and most of the time I had energy enough to spare. Only once or twice did I leave them entirely to Amit while I struggled with some difficult part of the route. But, though uphill was not difficult, my knees started to complain on the steep downhill stretches. Once, while holding Mrini’s hand on a particularly steep descent, I slipped and we both landed on the ground. Neither of us got hurt, but Mrini was understandably shaken (though later she could be heard bragging about it to Tara).

The rest of the time, I managed the walk without getting stuck anywhere. The uphill parts had me gasping, but that was to be expected. By day four, I had developed fluid retention and the familiar tightness and pain in the chest were back, but a single shot of Lasix took care of that. And yes, I survived on a gluten free, lactose free diet too. While the others stuffed themselves with puri and halwa and maggi and then snacked on chocolate chip biscuits to boot, I munched on peanuts and lunched on puffed rice. Breakfast was leftovers of the previous night’s dinner. The only thing I feasted on was onion pakoras on two occasions. By the time we got back I was ready to devour a kilo of nonveg and a litre each of ice cream and beer. And, a little over 48 hours after our return to the land of electricity and hot water, I’m well on my way to achieving those goals.

So that’s the short story. There is an unedited, unabridged version, but that’s in the shape of hand-scribbled notes which it will take me some time to transcribe (and decipher). Photos, hopefully, will be available sooner.

…Aaaaaaaaand We’re Off!

April 21, 2011

Mrini woke up today and said, “We’re going to Himalayas today!”

They’ve been counting the days since the last two weeks or so. Well, truth be told, so have we.

We finally seem to have got everything done. I went to bed a little after 10.30 last night and when I woke up this morning, everything was squashed into three big backpacks and various small carry on bags. The carry on bags are a motley crew – a cloth shoulder bag for snacks like biscuits and things; a plastic bag for the kids’ toilet seat which Amit insists will be useful in Delhi; a large camera bag which, quite apart from a camera body and two lenses houses and assortment of things including spare underwear for the kids, books for the kids, a headlamp for Ballu, my precious Maglite (yes, the same one), spare batteries, and other stuff; and a pair of walking sticks which is too inconvenient to pack anywhere.

Oh and a formal strolley which has all the decent clothes we will need for our brief social stopover in Delhi on the way back. When you are travelling with two kids, you can completely forget about those wonderful words, travelling light. Light? Our luggage probably weighs more than I do! It would merit a whole extra seat on the plane, if it were a passenger. (And it would be much more inconvenient to accommodate.)

I have remembered to pack toothbrushes, rubber bands for the kids’ ponytails, and a comb. I don’t know yet what I have forgotten to pack, but I’m sure I’ll find out at some crucial juncture.

So we’re off, folks! Hopefully we will make it back in due course – in which case, you can expect several lengthy posts about all that happened and didn’t. Check this space in early May.

I Don’t Think I Like This

July 12, 2010

Amit is off to the mountains again. For a trek. For three weeks.

I shouldn’t grudge him this. When we decided to have kids, I knew I would have to give up travelling. I knew I’d have to give it up for several years, at least, and after that, if we did return to it, it would be very, very different. So I did all I could before the kids came. I took a three-month break from work and spent it in the mountains. That was in 2005; and after that, our treks in 2006 and 2007 were an unhappy bonus, granted to me by the same Fate that denied me the babies I wanted to have. But at last, in 2007, our babies came home and we started on a new journey called parenting.

At that time, I was resigned to giving up travel the way we knew it then. Because, after a while and a lot of miles, you begin to feel like a marble rattling around in a tin can. I had realized that if it is a family you want, then travelling, no matter how much fun it might be, is not a substitute. The more I tried to relish the freedom of travel, the more I wanted, paradoxically, something that would tie me down, something to go home to, something to dedicate myself to for practically the rest of my life. Irritating, but true – you can have too much of a good thing.

We’ve travelled a bit after the kids came. According to Amit, we could have done a lot more, and a lot more adventurously, but I don’t agree. Travelling, the way we like to is such a selfish activity. It’s all about our own enjoyment – and there’s nothing wrong with that, but when you begin to drag two little girls around and subject them to significant inconveniences and discomforts, when they’d much rather be playing or sleeping in their own home… it all seemed more than a little unfair to me.

So we go with them to more safe and sanitized places than we used to. Of course, Binsar and Lakshadweep might not be everybody’s idea of a safe and sanitized vacation – nor Devbagh and Cauvery Fishing Camp (Doddamakkali), come to think of it; especially when you consider that two of these four places don’t have electricity and all of them don’t have a reliable doctor anything less than two hours away… but I agree that we didn’t do anything really adventurous, like going off for a trek in the Himalayas or heading for, say, Tibet or Outer Mongolia (both being way up there on the list of places to visit next).

I always knew I’d give up travelling with a pang of regret, but I’d give it up nevertheless. The problem with travelling is, to do it properly you have to make a job, even a career out of it. Vacations are just not enough. One or two weeks – or even one or two months – of travel each year does not make up for the rest of one’s life. Those who’ve been reading this blog for a while know that parenting was not something that came quickly or easily to me. The decision was slow in the making, and even slower in coming to life. It was definitely not something that just happened to me – I had to go out of my way – far out of my way – to make it happen. So by the time it happened, I was sure of one thing if nothing else – I really wanted to do this. Even if it meant giving up the joys of rattling around like a marble in a tin can.

Amit always maintained that even when we had kids, we should travel. At any rate, he said, when I expressed my reservations, he would travel. I had no objection – I privately thought that when push came to shove, he might not want to. As it turned out, what he wanted was for all of us to travel together, but without making any significant change to our rough-and-ready, backpack style of travel. He didn’t think much of my objections to how the kids would handle it. He thinks of travelling more as a broadening of horizons and perspectives, even educational in value, and less as a selfish indulgence. In his book, travel is good for the soul. The kids, he said, would love it. I remained stubbornly unconvinced for the most part.

He surprised me recently by acknowledging (spontaneously, albeit reluctantly) that the kids were not really of an age yet to go trekking with us; but he assesses their tolerance of discomfort at a much higher level than I do.

In any case, Amit never attempted to give up travelling. He would have to travel for work, of course, when occasion required, but he steadfastly maintained that he would continue to travel for pleasure as well. And he would do his best to make me come along, kids in tow. When the kids were not even two years old, in a moment of madness, he persuaded me that it was not such a bad idea to take them on a flight to Leh. Thankfully, the flight got cancelled, so we never had to put this crazy venture to the test. We took them to Chandigarh and Kasauli instead, where they got sicker than they have ever been before or since. (If you really want the gory details, read this.)

Last year Amit called off his trip to the mountain for unspecified reasons, so this year he was long overdue for a trek. My going was out of the question, of course – I have very little leave. So he planned to go on his own. He had no enthusiasm for it, though. It’s been a whole year since he went anywhere for business or pleasure and he’s not used to going away any more. He misses the kids even when he spends an evening away from home, so the prospect of three weeks seems like eternity. It’s worse now that the kids are old enough to understand and express things. We’ve been talking to them about Amit’s upcoming absence, of course, and told them where he’s going and what he’s going to do. We showed them Amit’s tent and sleeping bag, and showed them plenty of pictures of a previous trek in Ladakh.

On Sunday afternoon, Tara woke up from her afternoon nap, came to me, snuggled into my lap, and asked in a small, wistful voice, “Ladakh is very far away?” It almost brought tears to my eyes – and I’m not even the one who’s going away! Mrini wanted to know, in a more matter-of-fact way, whether I was going as well, and if so, what would she do, where would she stay? They haven’t yet thought of asking why he has to go there and do that… at least, they do ask why, but they accept “to walk in the mountains” as an answer. In another year, I’m guessing, that won’t do.

The weekend passed in a flurry of activity. We tried our hardest to get a tenant for the apartment before Amit left, and whatever free time was left from that endeavour went towards getting Amit prepared for the trek. Trekking involves so much more preparation than a more ordinary holiday – you need so much more equipment! Medicines, shoes, absurdly heavy warm weather clothes, tent, sleeping bag, pots and pans, plates and spoons, all kinds of emergency and contingency equipment such as needle-and-thread, matches, candles, cutting implements, rope, crepe bandage… the list is complicated and endless!

For two nights, our dining table was piled high with a mass of assorted stuff. When I fell asleep, exhausted, last night at midnight, a few parts of it were just becoming visible. Amit watched the football, caught up on office work, tidied up odds and ends of household chores, and cleared the dining table. He got to bed at 4 a.m. When I woke up at 6, I found the dining table largely cleaned up, and three huge sacks neatly assembled in the living room. At last, it was beginning to look like he really was going for a trek!

It’s the strangest departure he has ever made from home. His mind is full of work and household tasks left undone. I’ve been given a long list of tasks to complete, right down to filing his tax return if I can (yeah, right – I can barely manage my own). His eyes are missing the sparkle of the impending trek, his voice is toneless, and a teary goodbye to the kids at school was just a heartbeat away – but they ran off giggling and spoilt it! All the same, I’ve never seen anyone this reluctant to leave on a holiday – and when you consider that it is Amit leaving for a trek in Ladakh, it is completely… unexpected is the best word, though not incomprehensible perhaps.

Strangely enough, this time we both felt compelled to consider the worst-case “what if” scenario – though there’s really no reason to get that melodramatic about what is, after all, just another trek in the mountains. It’s just that the entire spark of travel is missing from this venture and it’s more like he’s dragging himself off for some particularly tedious obligation instead of embarking on yet another exciting rendezvous with the mountain gods.

Meanwhile, I’m completely, unabashedly envious. I watched him pack and wanted to pull out my own stuff and throw it in the sacks as well. I can see in my mind the fantastic landscape he’s soon going to be walking through. I can feel the peace and solitude of that ethereal place. I can hear the tinkle of the horses’ bells far away in the vast, silent, eternal universe. I can feel the weight of everyday life falling off my back as I hoist my backpack and become a wanderer once more.

But even as I envy him the trek, I can quite understand how leaving home is breaking his heart. Kids do that to you. Three weeks is a long time.

We were lucky that we shared ten great years of travelling together. And we are happy to be on this new journey called parenting. And we can still choose to take our more adventurous holidays alone, while the kids enjoy the comfort and security of home. And we all know that you can’t have your cake and eat it too…

But I don’t think I like it!

Lakshadweep Part 2: Kavaratti

December 24, 2008

We set sail around 12 noon on Wednesday, and the next morning, we were rudely awakened by the loudspeaker telling us we were at Kavaratti. We were to get to breakfast by 7.30 and to disembark by 7.45. I looked lazily at my watch, saw that it was already 7 and leapt out of bed. It was a mad rush, but we made it to the disembarkation door by about 8, and then had to wait for 20 minutes before we got on to a boat to take us to shore.

At Kavaratti, our beach was adjacent to the jetty, and was littered with small boats. The beach was pure white sand, amazingly clean, and the water was light green and almost transparent. After a welcome drink of tender coconut, which the kids guzzled lustily, we shed all our clothes (barring swimsuits: no nude beaches here!). At last, we could get in to the sea!


All four of us went in, though the kids were quite wary at first. The water was warm and shallow and completely quiet. Tara found that she could even walk in it quite easily.

After only a few minutes, a boat drew up to take us hordes on a boat-ride to the deeper areas where the coral was worth seeing. It was a glass-bottomed boat and the coral was really very nice in places. We saw a sea anemone, and lots of pretty fishes, which had the kids enthralled. We found out later that we didn’t even get to see the best parts, because the sea was too rough, but whatever we did see was quite pleasing enough.

After the boat ride, Amit and I queued up in turns for the scuba diving session. We were each given a 5 minute introductory session with the gear. The instructor was very nice, very patient and good-humoured and explained what to do. Whatever we saw of scuba-diving (very little, I’d say) was easy. The goggles completely cover the nose, forcing you to breathe through the mouth, which has a tube sticking into it (everyone sharing the same tube, highly unsanitary). If you don’t panic at not being able to breathe the nose, it’s easy.

After a bit, a boat came to take us out to where the diving would happen. The kids came with us, as the instructor had suggested. All of us were deposited into another boat farther out and here’s where the fun started. Turn by turn we got into the water, were strapped into the gear and taken down by a guide. The goggles really let you see everything that’s going on under water, and I have to say there’s a lot to see.

I can’t say that the coral itself was very pretty – I’ve seen more colourful and exciting coral on TV and in photographs (admittedly in National Geographic magazine); but the fish! Wow! They were all right there, clinging to the coral, swarming around, coming in to take a nibble of your fist (yikes! I didn’t like that!)… The colours, the conglomerations, it was wonderful, way better than it looks on TV. When it comes to coral, I’m keeping an open mind till I find something more spectacular, but when it comes to scuba diving, I’m hooked. Just those goggles dramatically change the way things look under the surface. I don’t think I can think of the sea as just a body of salt water any more, I’ll always think of those colourful little fishes swimming around just under the surface.

The entire diving experience occupied a couple of hours, and by the time we got back, it was time for lunch. Lunch was followed by a folk dance by a group of men, which we didn’t watch (I’ve always found fold dances boring). There were 3 cottages reserved for the use of our group (about 150 people), so we retired to one of these. The girls spent the afternoon playing with sand and with a blue kayak they found on the beach. Some kind of sightseeing was on offer (a hosiery factory), which we skipped.

Tea was served and consumed. Then we went inland for a little stroll. Everything was very rustic (rural, and poor might be better words) and there were no obvious tourist spots like shops, restaurants, or even streetside vendors. There must have been a town or village somewhere, but right there around the beach there was nothing to attract the tourist. Five minutes from the beach, I felt that walking around in shorts was not really appropriate.

It was past 5.30 when we got back to the beach and I was getting eager to get back to the ship. Amit and I had bathed during the afternoon, but the girls were indescribably filthy and soon would be hungry and tired too.

By the time the ship finally appeared on the horizon, it was past 8.30. The girls had had a slow meltdown, first Mrini, then Tara. After feeding them a couple of packets of biscuits, we scrounged some food off the organisers, who managed to scrape together some leftovers from lunch. It was a lousy dinner, but the kids were past caring. By 8, both were asleep in our laps as we sat on the beach watching the other tourists enjoy the unexpected gift of an evening on the sand. (Usually, and on the other days of this cruise as well, everyone is back on the ship by 5.30 p.m.)

After the ship had been sighted, it took a long time to get everybody on to boats and ferry them out to the ship. As it happened, we were on the last boat to reach. The journey seemed endless, the sea was quite rough, the girls were unable to sleep properly, and we were completely exhausted by the time we reached our cabin. And then, dinner was served. We were almost too tired to eat, but we managed a few mouthfuls each, by turn, as usual, and then collapsed.

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