Sep 26, 2007

Windfall and a Waterfall

(Group trip to Kanvashram-3)

The GMVN guesthouse at Kanvashram offers an ideal spot to enjoy a cold evening with bonfire, friends, music and toxics. Rafting camps ahead of Rishikesh offer some competition but they fall short on safety — imagine a doped-out friend walking straight into the Ganges and sailing his way to higher hunting grounds!! Kanvashram is safe. The spacious lawns at GMVN bungalow offer a view of flashbulbs downstream and a starry blanket in the evening, with a valid iron fencing to protect an erratic moron from rolling down.

Thankfully the alcoholic tolerance level was high in our gang, save for ShikhaP, whose Baptisation was long due. It turned out to be another adventure. Barely half hour after Ms P had downed her peg, war cries rang the compound. Normally, under alcoholic influence, men and women tend to pour out their love lives or hatred for the Ex, but Shikha’s distress calls surprised even the GMVN caretaker. “Mummmmmyyyy” was the violent uttering that cringed the rest of our 30+ crowd with guilt. Finally, after infinite loving pats and warm hugs from Sukriti, Shikha fell under the blanket and the party resumed

Next distraction came from the lyrical dialogues from a distant loudspeaker. Some Ram Lila was being staged nearby (??). Sabari murmured in unchaste English that we should take a hike to the spot and a small band rose to the occasion. I was not keen for several reasons: one, the village dogs would not take kindly to an excursion in the dark; two, the path suggested by the sound waves was pitch dark (mind you, elephants and leopards were understood to stalk the place); and finally, late night folk dramas are a family affair, separated in two for men and women. Jeans-clad girls smelling of alcohol, would only fancy the wicked menfolk. I strapped a khukri to my jeans and escorted the lot till the adventure fizzled out; the spot thankfully remained elusive for the drunken monks. Half and hour of running in circles and a few scrubs with the dusty path later, we all took recourse in a hasty dinner and the sleep goddess.

A good sleep is the best cure for hangovers and fatigue. No wonder, the EBites looked fresh as Kanvashram itself in the morning. Nine ultra-stomachs and only one frail cook, to quote Gabbar Singh, was “bahut na-insaafi” (grave inequity). I offered to play the attendant, fetching the paranthas from kitchen to the dining table, while the poor cook kept rolling aloo-filled dough. The butter-laden stuff remained short in supply as more hungry characters entered the dining room. Each parantha would be split into fours and disappear without a burp. This remained the drill for more than an hour until Shikha entered the room rubbing her eyes and was greeted with a loud applause. The poor girl had no memory of the past evening and looked a little flushed at the grand welcome.

Half hour more of the drill, and all of us looked contended with the breakfast and the cook exhausted. The warm day signaled a fresh start. Ordering a lunch on similar appetite programme, I led the pack to a three-kilometre walk (calling it a trek would be injustice) along the hillside. After passing by a dried Sahashradhara (milky water stream) we reached the desired waterfall in less than two hours. On our way we found large pounds of elephant dung to our excitement.

The Kanvashram waterfall was certainly no Niagara but it had a few pools and recurring flows for a delightful moment. Some of us just lunged into the splash, without taking out shoes, watches or belts. One by another deliberate one slipped into the waters till most were in to celebrate a Holi. My favourite co-excursionist was perhaps the only one who kept out, for women-only reasons.

Nobody felt the need for dry the clothes as the sun took the call. And it kept the word as we walked back into the dining hall that we had left a few hours back, we were all dried to perfectin. At the table, green salad had already been spread out and the simmering daal, chaawal and rotis were waiting for our footfalls (The cook had surely learned from his morning experience).

The heavy and gratifying lunch followed by a siesta and the evening tea did wonders to our spirits. While other waited for the rum caps to open, I took Sabari to visit a close relative nearby. I was most amused when my relatives began taxing Sabari on the joys of a married life, in the hope that he would pressurize me to this end. Sabari, a true blue Malayali who could not tell “this” from “that” in Hindi, nodded sagely during the monologue. Finally, when my relatives looked at him for a reaction, he uttered the few words he knew in Hindi: “Theek hai. Bilkul theek hai (That's right. Absolutely right).” I choked from a restrained laughter. My relative had done their duty.

On our way back to the camp, between the gusts of laughter, I asked Sabari if he ever did realize what my relatives had been trying to impress upon him. It was my turn to be stunned when Sabari spoke out in a serious tone: “Molekhi, I guess, you should get married.”

(Our attempts at climbing a slippery mountain and the journey back home in the concluding part)

Sep 21, 2007

A Dream Run & Lottsa Rum

(Group trip to Kanvashram-2)

The nine adventurists were to gather at Encyclopaedia Britannica’s Gole Market office on the designated Friday at 9 pm. Measuring the timescale, I reached the travel agent, surveyed the Voyager, which looked well maintained, and then moved toward the venue. On our way, while Premji serviced the fuel tank, I arranged the Coke-Limca, chips, plastic glasses et al to spice up our ride. Bang at 9, our sturdy carriage braked at Brits office. A few had arrived; some more were yet to join us. I chatted up with Sabarinath while surveying the attendance.

Groupism is unavoidable in a nine-pack jaunt from office: Kavita and Sudipta bonded at one side; Sukriti and Shikha bitched at the other; Jai held on to booze and an SLR camera while Shabarinath felt comfortable with a vibrant Geetanjali. Nisha and I ran around to maintain a fa├žade of unity.

Nevertheless, the larger picture was perfect. The flock resembled a smart bunch of seasoned tourists, with proper travel gadgets, backpacks and other vitamins. I had a rough seating plan ready in my mind — knowing the group, their sizes and preferences. But like all advance plans, this one too bombed. Barely had Premji adjusted the luggage in the boot section, Sukriti dived inside the Voyager like a penguin. She wanted a triple-seat with Shikha & Nisha; nothing less would do. Premji looked askance at me with what-is-this expression. I held him by shoulder and told him not to worry; a few of them were NRIs who didn’t know about Hindustani etiquettes (“look the way they all speak in English with each other,” I consoled him). Sabari and I were the only one who stuck to the original seating plan — Sabari alongside the driver and I with the sack of rum, chips, Coke and water bottles.

Premji didn’t have to wait long for his second shock. The moment he turned the ignition key, Shikha, who I had pointed as the real Angrez among the lot, shouted at the top of her voice: “Jai Maata di”. I nearly died of embarrassment.

And when Premji shifted the initial gear, there was a cluck of rum bottle cap. Jaichandran got down to work without losing a minute. In no time, there was a plastic glass in everybody’s hand and the car began to buzz. A few kilometers down, after Premji had heard Sabari speaking in Hindi, he was assured he was ferrying a group of NRIs indeed.

To reach Kanvashram from Delhi, one needs to take the Delhi-Meerut road (not the bypass); flip to Meerut-Najibabad route and from Najibabad Kotdwar is about half hour. Kanvashram is yet another half hour from the town. This makes a total journey of about six hour.

As Premji continued with his haul, without bothering the occupants, the car remained abuzz. Jai pulled a few fast ones at Sudipta, who had always pulled ranks over her juniors but with a Mitsubishi full of delinquents, she had only laughters for sympathies.

A quick dinner break ahead of Meerut put an end to the hoopla. Some were took over by sleep and some, like me, went into a somber mood. I generally get charged after the darkness falls (alcoholic symptoms, probably) but that day I gave way to a melancholic flavour. As the majority dozed, I found solace in a slow number by ‘Sufi singer’ Hans Raj Hans — Sili Sili andi hai Hawa. We touched Kotdwar around 4.30 in the morning with a thud.

After organizing a sugary tea session at Tourist Hotel, we set out to a place called Nimbu-chorh. Although the tarred road can take one direct to out destination, the GMVN guest house, I wanted my pack to have a feel of nature walk. For this one needed to take an on-foot detour at Nimbu-chorh. Leaving the baggage inside the van, I asked Premji to follow the road and reach “tourist bungalow”, and the nine pins set out to walk Himalayan foothills.

Jai defied the amount of rum he had consumed and focused on his lens. Sabari, Nisha and Shikha looked the most reluctant walker. Surprisingly, Geetanjali kept pace with me. Surprising because I have always prided myself as a fast-footer. The energy source was revealed by Sabari: Geetu was a gymnast in her school days (now, now, no wonder she had an enviable… err, stamina).

This route was an amateur trekker’s delight. There were mild uphill walks; a knee-deep river crossing opportunity, and; views of greens to die for. Jaichandran put his camera rolling while others tried to negotiate the easiest of curves. Crossing the Malini River was the most exciting part. Some took off shoes; others just rode off the knee-high water, yet others rolled up jeans and shrieked at every false step as if it were full of crocodiles…

The happiness didn’t last long. Upon our arrival at the GMVN guest house, we were told that although the rooms were empty, there was little water in the washrooms thanks to a pipeline burst a day before. Now, to a Himalayan traveler, regular water supply is of no consequence. He/she knows how to survive in far, far harsher condition; sometimes with no food and little oxygen too. But to an armchair excursionist, regular water supply in his/her commode is the minimum benchmark.

To their credit, the majority of our pack was happy with a room to crash. But expect Sudipta with her tantrums (I am sure a few more were just as much keen on the water supply but why make a noise when you have a Sudipta around?). I had to firmly reason with her that the place she had “chosen” to come was not a picnic spot nor a luxury boarding; it was a mild adventure trip and she should be happy if she got her two meals in time. Fireworks fizzled as soon as they had started.

Meanwhile, Premji had restored the interiors of Voyager. There was no trace of chips on the floor; mats had been washed and hung around to dry; and plastic bottles, crushed glasses had been consigned to the large GMVN waste bin outdoors.

I ordered the food at the canteen, finished the paperwork and set out with a local to oversee the repair work of water supply. A lot of things in our country don’t move unless somebody shakes them up. And so was it. By the time I was back in time for lunch and two rums on the sly, the water connection had been restored. The storage tank had kept up the supply for commode in the meantime.

After a warm vegetarian lunch, with lots of green salads and hundreds of chapattis, our team retired to their multiple rooms for a well-deserved siesta. I asked the caretaker if he could arrange for some deadwood to fire up our evening and he told me it was possible for a small amount of greenery for the boy who would arrange the bonfire. The prices were shamelessly low considering the big logs which our boy appeared with in less than 15 minutes. What better way to enjoy an October evening in the hills with fire outside and firewater inside. Our evening was made…

(The late night drama and visit to waterfall in the next post)

Sep 11, 2007

Why I chose not to be Raju Guide

(Group trip to Kanvashram-I)

At regular intervals, a few of my friends have suggested that I should give up journalism and start some independent setup for adventure tourism. This would mean that I organize trekking, river-rafting and other such adventure excursions, which I love so much, along with some amateur enthusiasts and make my two ends meet as well. On the face of it, the advice seems reasonably fair and economically sound. All of us would like to choose a vocation where one could mix business with his or her personal passion. Consider, for example, a movie buff who has chosen to be a film critic for a media group. Or a foodie who became a chef and other such fairy tale stories.

Now, wake up to look at it the other way. Since you love trekking or nature excursions, on bona fide advice you start a small venture on the dotted line. First, where do you find a bunch of enthusiasts who will pay for a guided trip and other such related services? Especially when all the entry routes to Himalayan getaways are dotted with such "expert" tour agencies? Taking an initiative, you go to various corporate houses, sell them your idea, haggle over the prices (feeling like a sales executive all the time) and finally secure a contract to win your seasonal bread.

But the worst part begins hereto: Half of your “corporate bunch” has never been out on an adventure trip and hence considers it a laid back holiday tour. Which means, ordering Coke-Pepsi at will in high altitudes, throwing tantrums for morning tea and nag about living in a tent, or the sand in his slippers. If you thought you have chosen a profession that suited your interests, good luck.

Instead of doing what I love, I shall opt for loving what I do – as far as making money is concerned. Pray, why I am sharing this with my friends! Well, I have been at the receiving end of such a bunch more than once when I thought it prudent to inject some fresh air into armchair intellectuals. I know better now: If one has a spark for adventure, he or she won’t need to show the light. Fire will catch up on its own. I have already described one of my hard-learnt lessons in this post. Here is a relatively milder one:

Circa 2000: I was working in Encyclopaedia Britannica and had already taken a brief trek with one of my colleagues. The stories, which Sukriti (my co-trekker) must have recounted to the vibrant women at Britannica, repaired my reputation at office. Some of the colleagues who arched their brows at my shabby jeans began to see an Edmund Hillary in me.

After being badgered on my mailbox about the next brief outing, I flashed a long-weekend plan to go to Kanvashram. For the interested, there is enough material about the historical relevance of Sage Kanva who, as folklore has it, set up an ashram there. I had chosen the place merely because I had organized, along with Wilson John, a similar trip for a bunch of wannabe trekkers in The Pioneer (a morning daily I worked for six years) earlier. All the thrilling elements were there around the Garhwal Mandal Nigam tourist lodge to lure a would-be trekker into the Nature’s trap – a mini waterfall stream; a small river barrage; barricaded lawns to discourage a drunken fall and a small but slippery uphill route. It would never be a disappointing outing for an amateur.

As was the case in other things Britannican, women exceeded the male participants (this was a comforting thought since I was then wedded to the bottle alone). In all, there were nine heads to beat the October humidity and head for Himalayan foothills. However, the final list had me in splits; there were too many violent eggs in one basket, from Geetanjali Chauhan and Sabarinath, to Jaichandran to Kavita and Sudipta. The only three worry-not souls I relied would be Shikha, Sukriti and Nisha. I thought and thought for the right kind of vehicle to suit this kind of “close-knit” group and decided it had to be a Mitsubishi Voyager.

Voyager is a sturdy nine-seater carriage, most suited for a gang of under-ten highway riders. There are no ooh-aah-ouchs from the backbenchers (something which deters me from hiring a Tata Sumo or Toyota Qualis) and its low suspension makes it a safe highway carriage. I also knew a travel agent who had this safe vehicle and a similarly safe driver, Premji. When I say safe, it does not limit the virtues road negotiations. Premji had proved himself to be the kind of person who wouldn’t look at a girl twice, whatever her attributes were. Nor would he ever think ill of a mini-skirted dame inhaling a poison stick. He believed in “to each its own” principle and bothered more about his van than its occupants. Fiercely possessive of his Voyager, he winced every time he saw the vehicle being used roughshod. Trust Britannica Babes, therefore, to spoil his day from the word GO.

(The journey and the problems begin in the next post)