Friday, 31 August 2018

Valley of Flowers: A Travelogue Part III


Valley of Flowers: A Travelogue
Part III

prologue

Not many people these days read what I write. But does that dissuade me? Nyet. I am shamelessly relentless, like the Poem-Writer:

……Who knows who sees......
Who knows who feels........

......but I write. Still.
In spite of.

And writing, I dream. Day dream-
Of my words upon your breast: hard-bound, upturned.

I dream-
Of my words’ wake
Humming you to sleep.
But since you are reading this right now, let me put in a request. Leave a word, for without a reader’s reaction, a writer (or for that matter anyone creating anything) is a blind man blundering around in a darkroom.

If you liked what I’ve written, let me know.
If you didn’t, let me know regardless, without words minced.
If you’re undecided, give me the benefit of your indecision and say it’s nice, just to be nice.

All feedback is essential, valuable and welcome.

Thank you!


THE TEA TREK: JOSHIMATH TO GHANGRIA


             Up at five, we were ready well in time for the next part of our adventure, the hike from Pulna to Ghanghria. Ghanghria is the base for many treks up into the Bhyundar valley viz. the relatively easy Valley of Flowers and Hemkund Sahib as also the serious ones to Tipra Kharak, Bhyundar Khal, Gupt Khal and of course, to the majestic Rataban Glacier. This camp (it’s not a village, for no one has a home here) comes alive in the month of May when the road to Hemkund Sahib is opened. It stays alive till October when the snows begin falling and Hemkund Sahib is closed for the long hard Himalayan winter. Ghanghria is at an altitude of 10003 feet; and from Pulna, the closest village, it is a climb of ten km with an altitude gain of about 4000 feet. Previously the hike to Ghanghria was about fourteen km from the last motorable point called Govindghat; but the local administration has now allowed vehicles up to Pulna because of which the distance has shortened by a whopping four km. It is now a comfortably rotund figure of ten.

             Petrified of altitude sickness, I had advised, cajoled and then finally bullied the other three, all non-believers (of Allopathic Medicine) into swallowing one pill of Diamox the night before. This exercise was to be repeated with fanatic regularity over the next four days, morning and evening and the kind of response that I received from the three had all the elements of high drama associated with the times Mimie my lab had to be fed some medication. I think the girls swallowed the pills purely out of affection for me and not out of any belief in my medical skills or the effectiveness of the medicine I practised. But I couldn’t care less, for I was sure of what I was doing. I was to be vindicated soon, but that will be revealed in the next episode.

             The clock hands were touching half past seven when I finally finished re-distributing my possessions between the rucksack, the sling-bag and the duffle-bag (for the tenth time)! I peeked outside to see if the others too were done, where I found them in an animated discussion with two fellas: one a spectacled, intellectual types with salted hair and the other a tall, athletic chap in OGs with cute almost buckteeth. It seems they too were headed to Ghanghria but since the third member of their group had developed cold feet after self-diagnosing himself with AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness) at 6000 feet (sic!) and had to be evacuated to Rishikesh in their car, they were now without transport to Govindghat. BB of course offered them a lift in our Jumb-Bus which they accepted with much relief and gratitude.

             Over that short fog encrusted twenty km from Joshimath to Ghanghria, over paratha rolls and biscuits, we became better acquainted with each other. Salt-hair was AK, a businessman from Kolkata who though a Marwari, spoke Bong so fluently that it was a delight to converse with him in our common tongue. He had a bustling camera business back home and was an almost-professional photographer who never posted his photos online since he did not want to be a competition for his camera patrons. He was also an avid traveller who had travelled the world and regaled us with stories of his varied escapades, from the lava fields of South America to the 2004 Tsunami at Koh Samui. He had such a youthful air about him that I automatically assumed he was younger to us. It was a shock to know he was on the wrong side of fifty and abashed, we quickly shifted to addressing him as AK 'Da', that very Bong epithet of respect.

             The other fellow was a young Indian Army officer from the Artillery and a Kolkatan. Fortunately, since we had correctly deduced his age (the right side of thirty), we escaped making any more faux pas and were also spared the need to ‘Da’ the chap. The girls seemed thrilled to have a real soldier amidst them and derived great pleasure in addressing him, Yankee style, ‘Hey Major, Hiya Major’ which I found extremely amusing. The Major and AK Da were friends, bound together by their common love of photography and they had made this trip specifically to capture the Valley and Hemkund Sahib through their lenses.

             After a very brief stopover at Govindghat, we left our dear Jumb-Bus behind and boarded a Tata Sumo that delivered us over a bridge on the Lakshman Ganga, into Pulna. Here we loaded our heavier bags onto a mule and after warily dodging a whole taxi-stand of these animals swatting flies with their tails and fertilising the trail, we took our first tentative steps towards Ghanghria and our ‘One Great Adventure’.

             Our guide was Dinesh and he had joined us from Joshimath itself. He was local, a Garhwali from Rishikesh and a trained mountaineer. Quiet, soft-spoken and terribly polite, he guided us up that steep relentless climb with limitless patience and good humour.

             The track from Pulna to Govindghat is of course kaccha, carved from the mountain side and paved with uneven stones; but it is not at all difficult, not even for someone like me who is overweight and plagued by creaky joints and torn ligaments. But it is without doubt pretty steep and in the beginning,  I found myself completely breathless after the first fifty meters itself. But I had tutored myself that I would not rush it but that I would not give up; so, I hiked, slowly at my own snail’s pace, not stressing my lungs nor my heart nor my locomotor system. I stopped frequently, without shame and rested to get my breath back, using these stops to photograph the flowers which had already began revealing themselves. The girls too moved at their own individual pace: BB leading the way. I spotted her way ahead, flitting over the uneven cobblestones like a gazelle in red and promptly named her the Flying Marwari. DD was next, in a beautiful purple jacket followed by CC in a sexy florescent blue one. I was the straggler and Dinesh walked behind me protectively, ready to catch me in case I toppled. While we struggled up the incline, our breaths coming in laboured gasps, Dinesh sauntered up the gradient as if the track was a Travellator at the Palam T3. In fact, I swear I heard him whistling in his mind as he ambled up.


             The track, as I have described previously was cut into the mountainside on our left and on our right, the Lakshman Ganga flowed in a deep gorge. On the other side of the gorge rose huge mountains whose lower reaches were naked razor-edged stones and whose middles were covered with dense jungles that looked like clumps of giant broccoli. At one point, we spotted a pretty waterfall on the opposite mountain and we stopped to take snaps. I tried to fathom where it originated from and so kept tilting my head backwards; till I realised that I could tilt no further and had still not spotted the waterfall's origin. The peaks of the mountain were shrouded with clouds and from somewhere within those clouds, I could make out the faint outline of the fall as it tumbled down. It kind of reminded me of legends of the Ganga descending to earth from the depths of the matted locks of Shiva. It actually gave a feeling as if the water was descending directly from the heavens above. It was an indescribable feeling and when I tried verbalising it in so many words to Other Half back home, he observed:  Like Jack’s Beanstalks!
Touch√©. I couldn’t have put it better.


I tried snapping a picture, but the head of the waterfall was lost in the clouds and my lens could not quite capture the mystery. 

             If you want to see the maximum number of flowers in the Valley, August is the month. On top of that, 15 August was close by and it was no surprise that the trail was crowded with numerous travellers. Some like us, had come purely for the Valley; while others were pilgrims to the Hemkund Sahib. All along the hike to Ghanghria, we crossed hundreds of Sikh devotees of all ages making their way up or down the trail. There were young fresh-faced, fit Sikhs who sprinted up the path, there were panting and wheezing older ones who moved only on the strength of their faith and there were still others, the old and infirm and the ill who either rode the ‘Ghodas’ or were carried on palanquins or on the backs of porters called Pitthoos. Occasionally we encountered young, hefty and perfectly able-bodied persons riding on palanquins and pitthoos. Seeing them made me feel good about myself braving that walk on my own two feet, however sore. This kind of self-satisfaction I know is not a good thing. But at that moment, every  little ego-boost served to flag up my morale and fuel my aching lower limbs.

             A thing I noted as we moved ahead on the track, was that smiles were given out so readily on those difficult paths. Complete strangers bestowed each other with wide un-hesitant smiles and sometimes even little words of encouragement. I realised that there is nothing that bonds people together more than a common adversary and a common goal, in this case the difficult road and the common destination, Ghanghria.

             The scenery of course, was magnificent: sky reaching mountains with beards of clouds, thick olive jungles and numerous waterfalls, some fat, some thin; all rushing down the slope in madcap abandon, fuelled by their need to embrace the river below. While the macro vista was undoubtedly breath-taking, the micro vista i.e. the flora was incredible too. I was stopping at every turn because I had spotted one wildflower or the other; and after some time, Dinesh who had taken position behind me because I was the group’s rate limiting member, realised that I was a flower buff. He began pointing out flowers to me, telling me whatever little he knew about them; and had it been not for him, I would have missed a few intriguing beauties. He showed me a yellow dogflower and to my intense delight, pointed out an anemone, a flower I had only read about in Enid Blyton books. I snapped tiny forget-me-nots, the colour of autumn skies and spied a variant of the dolonchampa. I am well acquainted with the dolonchampa, a pristine white canna like flower that has the most divine fragrance. The dolonchampa always reminds me of our Phoolwallah delivering packets of flowers every Wednesday for my mom who used them as offering during the Thursday Lakshmi puja. Occasionally within the usual hibiscus, marigold, frangipani and white champa, I would discover reposing, one or two fragrant dolonchampa. All night it would exude its typical perfume and I remember falling asleep lulled by its sweet fragrance. The one I saw here was an orange- yellow variant, with thinner petals but it too had a pretty fragrance. Returning, I researched the flower and found out that it is the Heychium spicatum. I do not know what variant the one I saw was, but I believe it is a close cousin of the Kapoor Kachri or spiked ginger lily and the rhizome is used as shampoo. I also spotted the jewel of the day, a resplendent Roscoe Lily, shining amidst the new grass like amethyst set in emerald.



            
           
As we gained height, breathing was not as easy anymore and fatigue fell fast. Our blood, used to the ample oxygen of the plains, protested at the deficient air we were supplying it. We now were forced to take more frequent stops, incl the Flying BB. But I noticed that after each stop, the body regained its breath and lost its fatigue pretty fast; till the next 50 to 100 m after which we had to take another pit stop. But resting was fun because it gave us time to catch up with each other, compare notes, snap a selfie and crack those inane but vital jokes that kept us going. at these stops, CC coddled us with little snacks she extracted out of her sling bag, an almond here and a namkeen there. I knew where she got that Mom-Mantle from (she was the mother of an only teen daughter). She easily slipped into the ‘Mommy’ avatar when the need arose, and for me (spoilt rotten by a mollycoddling Other Half all my adult life) I really relished all that Mommying she did over me.

             The trek from Pulna to Ghanghria is often referred to as the Tea Trek. That’s because its pretty easy and also because the trail is lined by numerous shacks selling nimbu paani, paratha and of course tea. Some of them even have little ragged benches lined by worn out kambals where you can lie down and take a nap. We stopped at a few of these and drank liters of nimbu paani and tea as AK da plied us with story after story of his travel travails. He was a great storyteller, blessed with a gift of words and of humour and we listened enthralled, reliving his wild and wonderful experiences as he spoke.

             At one point, I found myself walking abreast with the Major and couldn’t stop myself from asking a question that had be nagging me for a while now.
I said to him:
The teenage son of a childhood friend of mine, born and brought up in a foreign land had remarked - Mom you people take this patriotism thing too seriously. As for myself, I am not obliged to be patriotic.

This view held by a child disturbed me greatly, for patriotism was an emotion I thought was the most sacred, one that was beyond tampering, beyond questioning. I told my friend that though a child had the right to question, it was her duty as a parent to guide him towards the right emotions, beliefs and value systems. Many argued against my opinion and accepted the young man’s point of view. But I feel disturbed by their reasoning. Tell me, Major does it make you feel let down ?

Ma’am, he said simply, I’m doing a job. A job for which I have been employed. Just like the government staff who are doing theirs. Or you are doing yours. Nothing more. People are entitled to their opinion and that doesn’t affect me in any way.

             Don’t know why, but the Soldier’s matter-of-fact point of view, articulated quietly, sans hype, hoopla and drama filled my soul. Sipping my Frooti, I watched him oblige my three wide-eyed pals good naturedly when they pestered him for stories of Siachen. He told his stories simply too, without theatrics, without machismo and without any threads of covert or overt bragging. He talked also of his love of photography and of athletics and as I listened to him talk, in that typical Bong coloured English, he reminded me terribly of Tublu, the soldier protagonist of my story “And a Soldier Wrote. ( if you haven’t read it, do.)
            
             Though the climb became steeper towards the fag end, Dinesh kept our spirits up by his little white lies, “bus yeh last km hai…………..”

             So we plodded on, up and up, in tired silence except for the rain pattering upon our heads till at last we came upon a clearing, a circular valley surrounded by hills on all sides and ringed by the Lakshman Ganga roaring somewhere on the far left. In that half light of dusk, nothing much was visible except for silhoettes of the hills, the flat shadow of the helipad and the few sparse lights of the tourist tents at one end.

             We were, needless to say, dog-tired. Though we did pile together onto one cot under four massive quilts and initiated some some spicy gossip, most of us kept drifting off mid-sentence. Thankfully dinner arrive soon and after we had managed to stuff some nourishment into ourselves, we collapsed onto our respective beds and promptly drifted off into a dreamless, desperately needed sleep.

                I too slept almost uninterrupted till that one time when the CFL bulb in the room unexpectedly lit up, all on its own. The sudden white light flooding the hitherto absolutely dark room jolted me wide awake. But I was too bushed to get out of bed to switch it off and just pulled the quilt over my head to keep out the glare. Thankfully, it extinguished itself soon, again on its own volition and I told myself that it was probably because they had switched on the generator and then switched it off. But my reasoning sounded hollow even to my own self and I couldn’t help remembering stories of those fairies that live in the Valley of Flowers. Would they take the trouble to hike/fly down 2000 feet in the middle of the night to play silly pranks on four dead to-the-world women? Unlikely, but then fairies are whimsical creatures (that is why they are fairies) but too tired to even contemplate further, I promptly drifted back into my deep dreamless sleep.


PS To be continued.

And don't forget to comment!

Tuesday, 28 August 2018

The Valley of Flowers: A Travelogue Part II


Valley of Flowers: A Travelogue

Part II

Into the Hills: Dehradun to Joshimath

             The rendezvous was set up at Dehradun, but if I had hoped to experience any of Ruskin Bond’s reasons for being in love with this city, I was in for a major disappointment. The bus arrived more or less on time and I woke up from a bumpy sleep to a grey day overhung with clouds. What I saw from the bus window was not at all exciting: sheets of rain, roads drowned in huge brown puddles and a drenched, haphazard city that had rudely elbowed out most of Bond’s trees. The road outside the ISBT was an overflowing stream and I was thankful to be rescued within five minutes by a white mammoth of a Tempo Traveller. As it swallowed me up easily into its cavernous interior, I found certain misgivings surfacing: how dexterous would this huge vehicle be on the thin mountain road from Dehradun to Joshimath?

             I set my doubts aside for the time being as the white elephant (whom I shall henceforth call the Jumb-Bus) lumbered down the wet and overcrowded roads. After some anxiety because I was unable to locate our guest rooms, we finally reached our destination, an old colonial bungalow within the Dehradun cantonment, after good almost an hour. There I was greeted with effusive hugs by the other two (BB and DD, to be exact) and the comforting aroma of ‘bread-omelette’ packed in aluminium foil which was our packed breakfast. CC, as they informed me, was getting her make-up on (joke!) but soon she joined us, her hug redolent of some chic perfume and the warmth of an old, old friendship.

             It took us less than an hour to get ready: bags packed and repacked, chillar exchanged, payments made, some last-minute phone calls to home done and we were off. The interior of the Jumb-Bus was, as I had mentioned previously, gargantuan and with only four occupants, there was a football field sized space left vacant. We piled our luggage onto the rear seat and settled down comfortably in the front of the vehicle, each grabbing a window seat (less CC who was a little wary of toppling out of the window into the ravine below and so sat on the aisle side with a sheepish look on her face). Our driver was the gentle giant Soorveerji and he was, though I did not know then, both a careful and a dexterous driver who manoeuvred that awkward white elephant on those hairpin bends with a maturity that was very reassuring.

             The overwhelming memory that I have of the drive is one of rain. It rained in fits and starts all through that long 12-hour drive; though we did not mind it one little bit. We sat in the bus, like we had done for nearly twelve continuous years in our childhood and if I closed my eyes for a moment I could easily pretend that I was sitting inside our navy-blue ramshackle school-bus, heading to school on a rainy day and the babble around me was only the girls giggling and chattering under the watchful eye of Mrs Mathews in the rear seat.

             The drive was smooth except for a brief halt at Rishikesh because of traffic jam caused by landslides. Taking advantage of this break, we treated ourselves to scalding hot tea and Parle G biscuits from a roadside dhaba. This Parle G biscuit was to become a recurring refrain of our trek and I must admit, I have not consumed as much Parle G biscuits in my entire life as I did during this trip.


             Rishikesh, just like Dehradun was unimpressive, a jostle of concrete and disco Hindu spiritualism (yoga, Ayurveda, naturopathy, meditation etc). The Ganga, this city’s USP was barely visible from the road and I felt a little sad at how urbanisation had buried beneath concrete, the charm and the sacredness of this famous town.

             Slowly the road curved its way upwards in a sinuous trail. It was, in the portions where landslides had not disturbed it, wide, double-laned and well metalled. But the rains seemed to have had a field day and landslides were our constant companion. Surveerji informed us that it was not always a natural landslide that was causing the roadblocks. It seems work was on to widen the road to a four-lane and at many places the debris piled on the roadside owed their origins to the demolition undertaken by the NHAI for this purpose. I wondered at the wisdom of commencing road work in the monsoons but perhaps they had their own technology-backed logic.


             All along the drive we encountered saffron clad Kanwariyas on bikes making their way to Badrinath in this sacred month of Sawan to collect water from the holy shrine. I am not a religious woman but I respect faith and am often inspired by the piety of others. But nothing about these Kanwariyas warmed me to them. They were a rowdy lot, threes and fours and even fives on a single bike and they drove recklessly, without helmets, in a cannabis haze and with scant regard to the laws of the land; as if their saffron robes and the Tiranga (which for some weird reason most had furled from their bikes) gave them some divine/legal license to be unruly. Surveerji kept nodding his head in disapproval each time one load of these people whizzed across his path and at times even I felt tinges of concern for these youngsters, wondering how worried their mothers and wives and sisters would be for their safety. I wondered too, of the saffronisation of patriotism and of whether our ancient, wise and tolerant nation was turning into some kind of a Al Qaeda-esque despot.

             Slowly as we climbed higher, the flora changed costume. The tropical/temperate trees gave way to conifers and the shorter hills to massive mountain that rose straight up covered with thick olive greenery. The clouds were everywhere: a pall over the sky, crowning the peaks of the mountains, resting comfortably between two hill slopes, floating over the river…… And all along by the side of the road, now close at eye level, now deep down in the gorge, the beautiful Ganga flowed in gushing torrents on our right. We crossed numerous prayags or the confluence of rivers en route; beginning with Devprayag where the Alaknanda joins with the Bhagirathi. High up from our vantage point on the road, this confluence was clearly visible and Surveerji pointed out the evident difference in the waters of the two rivers: the mud-brown of the Bhagirathi contrasting with concrete gray of the Alaknanda. As we wound our way up, we encountered the other Prayags too: Rudraprayag where the Alaknanda meets the Mandakini, Karnaprayag where the Pindar and the Alaknanda converge and finally close to Joshimath, Nandprayag, the meeting point of the Nandakini and the Alaknanda. We also crossed this town called Srinagar and it was an education for all of us, for till then we had known of only one ‘Srinagar’, the capital of J & K. But this Srinagar was in Pauri Garhwal and a bustling town with a huge bazaar, important looking government offices, even a medical college and of course traffic-jammed roads. What I loved about it was that the Alaknanda flowed right next to the town and what a river it was here, a river like few I have seen. In the dimming light of a rain filled dusk, it flowed like a heaving torrent of silver or perhaps of mercury, edged by silver-gray sand banks. The air which was thick with water vapour had condensed at the touch of the icy river water and now settled like clots of clouds on the river’s bosom; and at one point I was confused: was it a river of water or was it a river of clouds………………………………………….!


             We stopped somewhere beyond Srinagar, but I’m not too sure where. The clouds, the rain, the tall, dark mountains, the nearing dusk and the growing chill in the air suddenly made us crave for some hot adrak chai; and when we found there were onion pakodas for sale, we grabbed the opportunity. It was fun sitting there by the roadside on that chilly monsoon evening, very far away from home and work; and sip sharp ginger tea and hot pyaaz ke pakode with old friends, friends from those simple innocent times, from times much, much before life became the complicated, convoluted thing it is right now.




             But we were getting late and as Frost had said, we still had miles to go before we slept. Surveerji shoo-ed us all into the Jumb-Bus and pressed on the accelerator; for dusk had dropped onto the mountain and it was getting darker and darker. As we drove ahead, I realised that the backdrop had changed further. Gone were the friendly green mountains. Their place was taken by monstrous naked, jagged black massifs that rose perpendicular high up beyond the clouds and in that frail twilight, they looked very intimidating. In fact, I could almost hear them remark disapprovingly in their deep old voices, of how these four fat fortyish women had no business bumbling around in the dark and empty mountain road when all other good little girls were in their beds......'for it was past eight o' clock!'

             It seemed that the plaints of these rocky Wee Willie Winkies were affecting us, for CC began turning jittery at the steep curves of the road, I began getting irritated at not being able to locate our guest house and DD became quieter and quieter, a-not-so-good sign. Truth was that we were ravenous, sleepy, bone-tired and cold; and desperately needed a hot bath and some comfort food, but we needn’t have worried: the ever so dependable Surveerji soon pulled the vehicle safely to a grand stop before our guesthouse, which we had successfully located perched atop the hilltop to Auli.

             I don’t recall much about that night except two things. First, that DD, whose pronounced sweet-tooth had been craving for a dessert all through the Jumb-Bus ride, was rewarded with that quintessential Indian Army dessert, semiyan; loaded with sugar and served with the artless sweetness of the infantry soldier. Second, that although we slept like logs right through the night, for some weird reason not yet fathomed, I dreamed of the Pakistani PM Imran Khan addressing his countrymen dressed in a pair of red pajamas with white polka dots………………………………………!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

(To be continued)



PS:-
Just to refresh your memory:
AB- Aibee
BB- Bindaas Babe
CC- Coco Chanel
DD-Dainty Dawn

Monday, 20 August 2018

Valley of Flowers : A Travelogue Part I


PROLOGUE

Every night, at that twilight juncture when one is not asleep but not quite awake either, I return to the Valley. 

I find myself huffing and puffing up the steep slope right through that cloud-mist, as rain prickles my vision. The giant pink balsams nod in encouragement as I pant by them, but the stones at my feet are horrendously uneven as ever and as ever, unfriendly. My stick searches for a secure surface to hook on and as it does that, I can hear, far below on my right down the deep ravine, the Pushpawati dashing through its gorge in madcap abandon. Before me, a thin road of stone glistens with rain as it snakes up and then down the lush green valley before disappearing into the mist. 

I missed seeing what lies beyond, for I had missed venturing ahead. 

I am now filled with an aching curiosity: what lies ahead, there in that mist shrouded green, between the black mountain walls that rise on both sides?

The botanist Ms Margaret Legge’s little white grave? 

More flowers, each prettier and wilder than the next, flowers this botanist who died young surely must have loved? 

Baby streams gurgling like chatterbox children?

The moraine edged glacier where Pushpawati takes birth?

The sharp white peaks of the Rataban?

What, what, what.........???

This is how the Valley has been calling me every night, a compelling call, like the Sirens of Circe, calls that I cannot ignore.  I must go back.

Must.
II
HOW IT ALL BEGAN

The reunion of LCR ’89 in Dec 2016 had been such a resounding success that it got the girls planning for the next one even before the hangover of the Tequila from this one had passed. Fuelled by the fun that all had had, meeting thus after three long decades, the girls were getting adventurous:-

Goa!

Kerala backwaters!

Havelock Islands!

Phuket!

Koh Samui!

The Great Barrier Reef!

Las Vegas!

Amsterdam ……..!!!!!!!?#*#₹#?!!!!!

Bindaas Babe (BB) then pulled the leash and reined in the 18 charged up women.

“Let’s organise a Trek!”

As we said goodbye that pleasant winter morning, her words stuck to my ears. A trek would be fun, I told myself. But where? It could not be too taxing as we were all fat and forty-five (except for Zeenat Aman and Madame Professor who both looked not a Nano-second above twenty-five). We all had creaking knees, jiggling bellies, waists with circumferences of cricket stadiums and thighs of such thunder that they would put event Sridevi’s to shame (Bless her soul!), that a trek would have to be really easy before we could even think of attempting it.

Then there was the issue of “chutti”! Most of the girls were successful career women whose bosses got apoplexy if they asked for leave; so, it had to be to a place that was easily accessible by air and requiring not more than a day or two of actual trekking.

A few years back, I was in Shillong and while researching the flowers of this beautiful town, I came upon a website called The Flowers of India. It was here that I read a blog by a group of young botanists who had visited the Valley of Flowers in Uttarakhand to photograph the flowers and add to the meticulously researched library of this website. There was something about the way the young woman had written the blog ( or maybe it was some thread from past lives that bound me to the Valley), but I was hooked. So, the moment the talk about the “LCR ‘89 Trek” cropped up, I suggested the Valley of Flowers. BB, our flying Marwari (I’ll tell you later why I call her that) and seasoned trekker promptly agreed to my suggestion and when many other enthusiastic armchair trekkers also supported the idea, it was a unanimous (at least I think it was) decision to elect the Valley of Flowers, Uttarakhand as the next stop for the LCR Reunion Version 2.0.

Sadly, because most of the arm chair trekkers refused to leave the homely comforts of their armchairs, LCR Reunion Version 2.0 landed up having only four purchasers: -
Bindaas Babe (BB): Chief Organiser, Guide, Photosynthetic Feeder and Resident Mafia.
Coco Chanel (CC): PR head and MoM (Minder of Morals which included reminding us whenever we forgot, the commandments of politeness viz. Thank You and Welcome that Sister Maria had hammered into us on the point of a wooden ruler).
Dainty Dawn (DD): Her quiet smile lit up those cloudy days and her sudden, unexpected one-liners lifted flagging spirits on many, many occasions.
And of course, yours truly Aibee, in-house medic, ballad writer, and I must shamefully admit, the resident “Scaredy Cat”!

III

PREP

The Valley of Flowers, about 35 km from Joshimath, is situated in the Garhwal Himalayas. The nearest airport and railway station are both at Dehradun, the capital of Uttarakhand. While Joshimath can be reached after a gruelling 10-12 hour drive from Dehradun, the actual trek does not begin till one reaches a tiny village called Pulna (about 25 km from Joshimath) from where one must climb 4000 feet over 10 km to reach what may be called the ‘base camp’, Ghanghria. From Ghanghria a climb of another 2000 feet over four km takes you to the entrance of the Valley of Flowers. You can also climb 5000 feet over six km to reach the holy Hemkund Sahib, sacred to the Sikh faith.

You may be wondering why I am harping so much on the altitude of each place. That is because anything above 9000 feet qualifies as “high altitude” and carries with it all the risks associated with diminished pressure of oxygen in the rarefied air found at such heights. “High Alti” must never be taken lightly for I know of hardened young men dropping dead without warning at such heights. In fact, I have myself experienced the scare of an impending AMS many years back in Ladakh. I had just arrived by air there and because doctors think they are rendered immune to diseases simply because they know all that is to know about them, I visited a local fruit orchard and then played two or more games of table tennis immediately on landing. Next morning, I woke with the constant ring of a particularly cacophonous doorbell in my ears that refused to stop, along with the heaviness of ten elephants in my head. Then when I dragged myself out of the quilt, heading for the washroom, I was hit with a bout of such intense dizziness and nausea that I could not even take the three tiny steps into the washroom.

I was suffering from the initial stages of what is called Acute Mountain Sickness or AMS and readers, it can kill. Thankfully, I was put under immediate bed rest and medication and recovered quickly. This was at 10,500 feet.

Ghanghria is at 10003 feet and with no one talking about acclimatisation, I was petrified that we would all succumb to the altitude if we tried trek there. So, I stocked up on Diamox (acetazolamide, a medicine used to protect you from altitude related illnesses) and tried to do some uphill walking daily to improve the oxygenation capabilities of my lungs and heart and melt some fat from that lard on my bones which pretended to be muscle. But so much unaccustomed exercise awoke my genes of laziness which soon put an end to the daily walks and jogs; and I decided that while I did not mind dying due to lack of oxygen, I did mind dying unsuitably dressed. So, I transferred all my attention from getting fit to looking fashionable and spent a small fortune on trekking pants, rain gear, sunblock, trekking sticks and the highlight of it all, a pair of high-ankled waterproof hiking boots that made me lighter by five straight grands. The buying spree was infectious and soon CC and DD followed suit. BB, who already possessed the required gear being a veteran trekker (two trek old), was our fashion adviser in the matter and after much discussion and debate on issues such as the relative benefits of rain ponchos vis-à-vis rain-cheaters/rain pants and high-ankle boots vs low-ankle ones, we were finally ready for the trek.

Or so I thought. On Friday evening (I was to leave on a Saturday), I realised that I had piled so much stuff into my duffel bag that it appeared to weigh 10 kilos and there was no way I could lift that over 500 metres, let alone the uphill 10 km to Ghanghria. Other Half found me late in the night in panic mode, having a major meltdown, unable to decide how many pairs of trekking pants I should carry. A fine balance of coaxing, cajoling and threats from him got me back on track and a joint decision that we would hire a mule to carry our luggage up to Ghanghria settled our combined apprehensions.

That night before falling asleep, I decided we needed a mascot for our trip. I had read about the elusive blue poppy (Meconopsis aculeata), a Himalayan flower that grows only at such high altitudes. I thought that in some way, this frail flower that braved the harsh rarified air would be an apt mascot, inspiring and egging us on; telling us that in spite of being fat and forty and totally unfit, in spite of the many odds against us, we could and we would reach the Valley of Flowers.

Satisfied with the choice and reasoning, I posted a pix of the Blue Poppy as the DP of our WhatsApp group and fell asleep, dreaming about pale blue flowers with stamens of yellow gold, fluttering in the monsoon wind.





Thursday, 16 August 2018

You Wear So Much Saffron these Days




You wear so much saffron these days, such deep dark saffron, with base notes of menace.

I remember how not so long ago you wore other colours too. Whites, of freshly fallen mountain snow, of a little boy’s evening cup of milk, of the dots of fragrant chameli on a monsoon vine. Blues, of skies after a shower of rain, of the sea just beyond the bay, of ipomea fluorescing in the morning sun. You wore greens, of paddy fields and of the gold-green light filtered through new leaves at spring. I’ve even seen you wear pink, a woman’s favourite: magenta, peach, fuchsia, coral, salmon, bubble-gum and hot.... I’ve seen you in gray, strong, of steel; and in dapper black, stark like a night-sky shorn of stars....!

Those days you wore saffron too: dull red strands soaking in milk, leaching thin eddies of golden yellow. Saffron that was wise and kind, the sadhu’s serene robes; sometimes, the saffron of allure - forest palash bursting with blooms, an orange sari with its thin edge of black.

But never this saffron. This saffron sets your jaws in concrete, your heart in stone and stares out from your yellowed eyes in an obdurate cannabis haze. This saffron, unforgiving, unrelenting; pulsating in the throes of a single powerful lust.
This saffron, lusting for power.

This saffron was never your colour.
It scares me.
I retreat. You recede. Away from me, as a bottomless chasm of seething saffron lava opens up between us.





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