Monday, January 23, 2012

5 women, a guide, 4 porters, 11,000 feet, 88 kms and 6 days

Life is a journey they say, it is never about the destination but it is certainly all about the experience. The soul is restless, often passive often dynamic. There is almost always a flutter. Curb it all you want but the desire to soar, the need to rise; the urge to fly is in each of us. We just box it differently. If anything we mostly fear mediocrity. Sometimes you need that nudge in life to push yourself to get outside your comfort zone.
If I rise, one more chance
All our dreams, more than this
O’ your taller now I’ve found
Hold your fire course
O’ your fallen out
Go and sow your courses

If I thought I wanted more
Get the life more
Just one more call.

If I believe, there’s more than this
Anymore than this

It makes you wonder that we have the opportunity to think about how we conduct ourselves to this one life we have and yet we only do that when it’s almost too late. But when we do take that opportunity, it simply changes our lives.
I want to believe that I live my life with spontaneity but the truth was far from it. I wander about in my staccato of a life trying to fit into what is required. Doing as required, acting as needed. I could sit hours in a crowded place in utter mental silence, drowning even my own chatty voice, unattached and dreaming. I truly believe I have wings somewhere inside of me fluttering periodically, reminding me of what is to be explored and untouched. Its called restlessness and many of us get it, mostly ignore it or don’t quite understand it. I am glad I noticed it because as I discovered you are alive because of it. Routine provides safety and security to most of us but leaves us dissatisfied because we humans are born to explore. To soar. To venture. To take risks. To fail. To strive for more. And for the first time I discovered my love for failures.
An opportunity to attempt a trek had all signs of possible failure for me; I was becoming complacent, nestling in my comfort zone. But after a long time I felt those flutters rising. I was getting excited about an opportunity to explore my own potential. I was always athletic, but that was in school 25 years ago. But what you do best or love the most always stays with you. Time is no measure to calculate passion.
And when that chance came, I knew better than to ignore it. Me, a mother of two, in my forties, always lived in a city in India and even abroad in the most modern conditions. Never having to concern myself with lack of electricity or water or any basic amenities. I was in short, spoilt, conditioned and quite ignorant or so I thought. Until one day when I got a chance to experience life beyond the shackles of modernity. I had the opportunity to go trekking on the NE mountains of India with my girl friends and go for what was labeled as a moderate trek. Sounded cool. Trendy and happening!
After all it involved 5 women, a guide, 4 porters, 11,000 feet, 88 kms and 6 days of walking. How hard could that be?
The stage was set.
A human being is meant to be a spontaneous explorer. We spend too much time within four walls, surrounded by everything artificial. Chances are plenty but few are taken and when my friend Shobha talked to me about a possibility of undertaking a trek to Sikkim some unfinished bubbles of spontaneity jumped inside me and I said yes lets do it. No idea what I was getting into, not sure if I could do it, no plan around what it entails but a desire to take the leap. What do I know? A city girl all my life, I knew of mountains only from Bollywood films where the hero sweeps his lover in his arms over green meadows. I also lived 11 years in the Pacific Northwest, in the United States, surrounded by tall pine trees; valleys of greenery, blue lakes, and snow capped mountains and even occasionally camped in the outdoors (note only in areas where they had flush toilets). But I had never explored a mountainous area trekking. With minimal amenities and the unknown. Go figure that. I was apprehensive but more excited.

We were to go to Darjeeling in West Bengal, NE India and start our trek from there. The route included Nepal and border of Sikkim. A plan was made; an all girls group was formed. I knew I wanted to be with girl friends that would tolerate my tender experience in trekking and clogged laziness accumulated over years of city-inactivity. I thought I was active – aerobics three times a week, badminton 2 times a week and I looked close to fit for a 42 year old. But there is something more about trekking on mountains as I learned later; it is more about endurance, patience and respect for nature than just physical strength. It’s about crossing over from city reel life to real life around nature. The sheer magnitude of nature and its force reminds you of your petite existence, as I learnt later.
Based on our profile an itinerary was drawn for a moderate trek. Something achievable, doable and survivable:

• MAY 09, 2011, Day 01: Pick up from Bagdogra and Darjeeling stay overnight.
• MAY 10, 2011, Day 02: Drive Darjeeling- Dotery and Trek to Tumling (6 kms)
• MAY 11, 2011, Day 03: Trek Tumling or Tonglu – Sandakphu (20 kms)
• MAY 12, 2011, Day 04: Trek Sandakphu – Phalut (21 kms)
• MAY 13, 2011, Day 05: Trek Phalut to Gorkhe (19 kms) to Rammam (9 kms)
• MAY 14, 2011, Day 06 Trek Rammam - Sri Khola (12 kms)
• MAY 15, 2011, Day 07: Trek Sri Khola – Rimbick and drive to Darjeeling, Then overnight Darjeeling
• MAY 16, 2011, Day 08: Drop off at Bagdogra airport and return home.

Target was set at approximately 88 kms in 6 days. This trek has some stupendous views of Kanchendzonga and other mountain peaks we were told. You will be trekking often close to the Nepal border we were told.
It took a little convincing but five of us agreed to do this trek at an agreed time and we signed up. We went through the usual paraphernalia of setting the date and time for this trek and listing out the equipment, gear and things needed for this trek. We decided we would leave on May 9, 2011 and end the trek May 16, 2011. The planning stage began. Two friends Shobha and Nishrin would travel from Hyderabad, Jumana was traveling and would arrive from Delhi joined by her sister Munira, who was coming from the US for this trip and I would fly in from Bangalore. Yes – it truly was a global plan.
Our tour guide sent us a mail a month before we were due for travel. It entailed fitness tips to prepare us for the trek. Doing the stairs was ideal we were told, running, aerobics, walking with a heavy backpack, strengthening the hamstrings, quads, were the guidelines. Interestingly we all did different things. The group in Hyderabad – Shobha, Nishrin and Jumana, undertook the stairs and walking and one of them hit the gym. The Jersey girl, Munira an avid hiker joined a boot camp for a short time, and as for me, I decided to just walk my way through. I started with short 45-minute walks in the area I lived and increased that to 5 km- 8 km, 1 to 1.5 hour walks within the city. My friend advised me to work on the quads and hamstrings and that’s when I jumped into the gym and worked on those. I can’t say I was prepared but I felt ready enough. Of course in my own well known organized style, I drew out excel sheet lists of our exercise regime, things to take, what to buy etc.. And shared it over with my friends. This of course was part of my not so spontaneous temperament. I had to plan every detail and leave nothing to chance. But I was truly bitten by the enthusiasm bug and wanted to spare no detail.
Airline Tickets were booked to Bagdogra (honestly I feel bad saying this but I had never heard of this place before). Bagdogra is a small town in the Darjeeling district of West Bengal (WB), which is surrounded by tea gardens and is currently known for its great connectivity to the North East region of WB. I had to fly Bangalore to Hyderabad then to Kolkotta and finally to Bagdogra. That it itself felt like a mammoth trip.
It was a 6:40 am flight on May 9th. I was to meet a couple of my girlfriends in the plane who would get in from Hyderabad. I spent the last two days before departure preparing my kids; my home and my hubby and my household help for my departure. I felt like I was going to battle and had to stock up before I left as if I may not make it back. I am the sole controller of my household and interestingly I felt no pain in letting go of that control. How often do we get a chance to do something solely for ourselves? More than we take actually. With my husband’s encouragement and my children’s pride for me I ventured out of my home in the early hours of that day. Funny how we think we are indispensable. I waved goodbye to my husband at the airport as he pulled away from the curb. He looked at me encouragingly while I pondered warily about how he would handle the household and the kids while I was gone. It was too late to turn back now. Chances must be taken.
I sat in the plane looking out of the window and wondered what the heck was I doing? I felt no excitement, just utter shock. The spontaneity bubbles burst and I panicked upon the realization that I was on a plane at an unearthly hour, all alone, away from my secure life and was flying solo to an unknown place. My panic attack continued as the plane glided into Hyderabad and subsided only when I saw my friends Shobha and Nishrin get on board the same flight at Hyderabad. They had the same look on their face. We all looked at each other amused and burst into laughter. Asking the same question but excited about what we were about to embark upon. None of us had a clue what we were about to encounter in the next six days.

Our flight reaches Kolkotta late and we are lead from the runway/ ramp area directly to our next flight to Bagdogra. It was one of those ATR flights that are small and carries limited number of passengers. We land soon enough and it was now 8 hours by the time I left home. On a bright afternoon on May 9th we reached Bagdogra airport. A pretty looking place with vegetation I had seen before. Only faces were different. You see India prides itself for its diversity but we ourselves don’t realize how diverse we actually are. I made a mental note to make plans to visit other parts of India more often in the future.
Our friends Jumana and her sister Munira there greeted us. They had arrived earlier and had met up with our driver, Raju.
Raju our driver was the first interesting person we met in this trip. A jovial, chatty, amiable guy with a Chinese goatee and a baseball cap, he looked very comfortable in our company. It appeared as we spent more time with him and his car that his two favorite things besides talking on the phone were singing and bird watching. He carried a heavy book about birds gifted to him by another traveller and referred to it often. It was always in his car like a bible in a hotel room. He didn’t seem perplexed at all at the prospect of five ladies going on a trek, nothing unusual there, happens all the time. He took us to a lunch place where we had a typical North Indian meal. People who spoke Bengali and looked North Eastern surrounded us. Not something we see very often down south. I could see things were changing already.

The 2.5 hours drive up to Darjeeling was interesting. Breath taking views already surfaced within minutes of our climb. We were in a van - the Toyota Innova van that looked seriously out of place in the mountains. Somehow the roads are always narrow and the driver is always driving on the edge. With our hearts in our mouth and a strong urge to throw up we tried to divert our attention to the scenic beauty that surrounded us. We stopped and took some touristy pictures still not digesting the terrain we were about to set out feet on.

We even passed a group of children playing cricket. My analytical mind wondered how many cricket balls would go over the valley before these kids realized this was not the best sport to play on the mountains. But kids don’t make such analysis, thank god!

We arrived at Darjeeling at the Snowlion Homestay at around 4 pm. I was tired from the long journey. It had been 12 hours since I left home. We were ushered into a room by Sujata our coordinator. The room had interesting décor. Immediately you notice small carpets/rugs on top of the cane furniture and some on the floor. The rugs and the colorful walls and the décor emitted a warm cozy feeling. Every shade of red you can possibly imagine. Pictures of the Dalai Lama revered the walls. Everyone looked Oriental. A hospitable tray of hot Darjeeling tea with fruitcake was brought in for us. It was the most delicious tea I drank and one of many that we would drink on this journey.

As we settled down carrying our city like bearings in that meeting room, Sujata ushered in a middle-aged man. It was Nandu our guide for this trek. Nandu a short, slender, Tibetan looking man, who seemed uneasy around us initially, greeted us warily. He gradually eased up to our barrage of questions as he answered each of them expertly. He laid out the plan, brought us up to speed with the weather conditions and seemed quite professional in his conversation. His attitude was of sharing information on a need to know basis. It was the first glimpse of how patient and controlled this man was going to be in our journey. It was also a glimpse of how much he spoke in very few words. I don’t know whether this is a city thing but we ask too many questions and are not satisfied if we are not in control of the situation. Information overload is a way of life for us. We are not content with what we get and this journey opened windows to that part of the world where peace, contentment and understanding of nature was a way of life. Nandu asked us to rest up and be ready for our journey the next day. We would start at 8:30 am. It would be a 6 km climb he estimated, to be completed in 3-4 hours depending on our speed.
After a well-rested night we woke up excited and eager to begin our trek. We met up with Nandu our guide and Raju our driver. The plan was to drive for about 1.5 hours to Dotery and that is where our trek would begin. As the journey began Raju put in his MP3 player into the stereo and played Buddhist hymns. Immediately you were transported somewhere in the peaceful abode of the Himalayas. Slow, uninterrupted, monotonous yet harmonious melody that resonated into a spiritual and peaceful atmosphere. It was as if we were floating along with the winding roads.

On these roads we passed smiling school going children, with red cheeks; they had the most amazing smiles that reflected full on innocence. They showed no signs of fatigue as they climbed over the hilly slopes, pushing themselves with their heavy backpacks cheerfully.

We passed wafts of clouds that seemed rather comfortable in this beautiful valley. We saw a melodious steam engine chugging away on the roadside.
Darjeeling is home to perhaps the very few remaining steam engine trains in the world. The Kurseong-Darjeeling return service and the daily tourist trains from Darjeeling to Ghum (India's highest railway station) are handled by vintage British-built B Class steam locomotives. The unique characteristic of this train besides its reminiscent presence and flavor of the British Raj is how it characterizes the valley and its people. It is one of those quintessential entities whose steamy presence is the spirit and soul of this valley. The train often meanders through the local bazaar, brushing past fruit stalls and local traders, a common sight to see here but fascinating for us travellers. It merges with the descended clouds joining as one and waving into and drifting through the trees.

We also passed several houses that stood along the road; some seem to stand the test of time. Brightly painted in blue, orange or green they were endowed with posts of colorful planters hanging in front of the homes or sitting around it like a vivid psychedelic border, enticing visitors to the valley. It is as if there is no mood for misery or unrest. It is color at its best, shaming perhaps the most imaginative artist. We continued to absorb this beauty and experience almost forgetting we had a hard task ahead of us.
We arrived at Dotery and found ourselves in the middle of this small village. There was a light drizzle and chilled but pleasant atmosphere. There were kids running around, the locals were one group, bound by their heritage and work. Everyone knew everyone else there. Tourists and trekkers were commonly seen there so we were no big deal at first. We alighted from the van stretching our feet and getting hold of our bearings. A group of people surrounded us and eyed us. But the ones that eyed us intently with a sort of shock were these four men. Something about us gave them an unsure look.
Nandu spoke to the four men about something, while we debated whether we should wear jackets, cover our backpacks to save it from a drizzle, how many layers we should have on, as it only gets cooler etc etc... Again - information overload. The men seem to act on instructions meted out to them to take over our large rug sacks. We realized we had just met our porters. There were no formal introductions, no exchange or nod, simply handing over of our bags. We started sensing our loss of control right about then, we were the ones now who were being given directions, and we were the ones who now for the next six days would follow the mountain people. We were clearly in their territory.

We were humbly ushered into this tea stall for some sweet tea and hot momos. It was dark and dingy with a small kitchen. Nandu got us seated and started helping the lady in the kitchen with the set up. We were served hot momos with delicious peanut and chilli chutney. Simple foods yet fascinating flavors just like the people here. I remember smiling to myself; this is going to be fun.
With details of what to wear, how much to carry all sorted out, we took off on our day 1 of trekking with Nandu our guide. The porters did not walk with us. Apparently the porters take another route. A much shorter, but tougher road which of course us city girls cannot even imagine walking on. We did not know where they were or where our bags went. The key word from the very beginning was trust. We had to trust our guide to show us the way, the porters to bring our valuables safely, to count on our body to perform, to hope we weren’t murdered in the middle of nowhere and our body dumped in the valley for no one to find (Heck, I know it's a wee bit dramatic), the weather to cooperate, the road to be mountable, the goal achievable. 6 kms seems easy as we had done that much in our training sessions. But in reality when you walk though fog, rain, thick woods, utter silence and no sign of human life it’s all together different. It is almost spiritual. You are instantly transported out of your own inadequacies into a more transcendental state. You become one with nature. It was beautiful at first. We passed a small school and started climbing upwards almost at a 60-degree angle. It would be very romantic if I were just a tourist sitting on a horse letting the beast take my burden.

We took pictures enthusiastically marking our beginning of the journey. We climbed slowly. Within a matter of minutes our layers started to come off. The cold was replaced by sweat and heat. The body was learning to adapt to change. We spent few more minutes re-packing our gear, now understanding why Nandu wore such light layers. He had one small bag with him. He never told us how many layers to wear. He was like a parent letting us figure out our own way. He waited patiently, answered our questions tirelessly and stopped when we looked tired. Never nudging us to move on. We kept walking. The open misty road turned into a wooded area with tall trees. Pinecones scattered everywhere. Wet leaves leaving no crunching sound, the rain providing music. An occasional bag of chips seen, reminding us of destruction we humans cause. Our heads down, we walked on in full reverence of what was ahead of us. Every shade of green, brown and yellow splashed around us. The colors were vibrant and so real. At one point we paused as Nandu heard some sounds. Of course we didn’t. Our ears are drowned with own chatter. It was a bird. Now I am not much of a bird watcher so unfortunately cannot recall the name. But it spoke to us. Welcoming us. We took a picture in silence but could not capture that beautiful sound. This was one of many moments when we would listen, absorb and experience but cannot share electronically. We moved along. Tired and exhausted but very happy. We took a bite of our supplies of nuts and granola bars. Nandu graciously accepted our offer of the modern “healthy” foods we carried.

After about 3 hours we reached an open area. A clearing and then the rain came lashing down on us. Again our gear changed, out came the ponchos. Our ponchos were our best bet. They cover the body and the bags. We felt the cold rain hitting our exposed skins and somehow it felt rejuvenating. Cold, but definitely rejuvenating. An experience that is different from the routine is always life changing. The lashing rain, the feeble ponchos, our tired feet and a lone cow in the meadows; who wants routine? I remember a very slender path we were walking on, slipping as the wet soil broke as we stepped on it. A little stream was created instantly by the rain and flowing through the path. Nature was at its best; creating and recreating, changing and ever evolving. Thank god for rain proof trekking shoes. That was our best buy for sure; I highly recommend one of those. Thank you Decathlon Sports store, Bangalore.

About that lone cow! Right in the middle of the already dissolving path was a black cow. Refusing to budge asserting her place in the rainy terrain. We yielded and went around it as we do so in the city too. One unique observation – cows behave the same way anywhere (at least in India). Whether they are in the middle of heavy traffic, in the city or in the middle of nowhere, in a valley. Once they stand somewhere they don’t budge.

Further on we came upon a colorful stone structure that looked like a memorial with fluttering flags and painted words that said,“Om mani padme hum”. I tried to find the meaning of these words but apparently the Buddhist regarded the translation of the mantra as secondary, focusing instead on the correspondence of the six syllables of the mantra to various other groupings of six in the Buddhist tradition.
The mantra with the six syllables colored. Literally. Jewel (Mani) in the lotus (padme)”

The six syllables to represent the purification of the six realms of existence:
Om – generosity (Pride/ego)
Ma – ethics (Jealous/Lust for entertainment)
Ni – patience (passion or desire)
Pad - Diligence (Ignorance/prejudice)
Me – renunciation (poverty/possessiveness)
Hum – Wisdom (aggression/hatred)

What wisdom in the middle of nowhere? This is a unique feature of the mountains in the east. It converts the region into a monastery.
The Indian Buddhist Sutras written on cloth in India were transmitted to other regions of the world. These sutras, written on banners, were the origin of prayer flags. There are basically two kinds of prayer flags. Lung Ta (horizontal) prayer flags meaning Wind Horse in Tibetan, are of square or rectangular shape, and are connected along their top edges to a long string or thread. They are commonly hung on a diagonal line from high to low between two objects (e.g., a rock and the top of a pole) in high places such as the tops of temples, monasteries, stupas, and mountain passes.
Darchor (vertical) prayer flags are usually large single rectangles attached to poles along their vertical edge. Dar translates as "to increase life, fortune, health and wealth", and Cho translates as "all sentient beings". Darchor are commonly planted in the ground, mountains, Cairns (pile of stones), and on rooftops, and are ichnographically and symbolically related to the Dhvaja (meaning flag banner, a military standard of ancient Indian warfare). Aren’t we all enlightened already?
As we passed these fluttering prayer flags we noticed the arrival of our porters from literally nowhere. They looked at us like they were not expecting us to actually make it that far. They walked as if they had just started the journey, while we trudged along chasing our breath in the thin mountain air.
We arrived at the Tumling village. A slender path took us to a small cluster of homes huddled together. The clouds are a regular feature here, floating around, as they are part of this valley. That is when you realize you are climbing to higher grounds. We were greeted by lush green meadows, a cobbled road and small dogs that ran around us escorted by goats. And that is when we met wide-eyed Mandeep.

Mandeep was a beautiful five-year-old orphan who had been adopted by the local residents. The boy never spoke a word leading us to believe he couldn’t speak. He stared at us with those incorruptible eyes and rosy cheeks. He was wearing smart modern denim wear, a monkey cap and was chewing a scarf. His ears were pierced and there was a reason for it. Nepali boys get their ears pierced to avoid being born as bulls in their next lives :) I just love the explanations to all the happenings in the valley. It always involves some exotic story. Ever see a guy in the city wearing earrings because of reincarnation reasons? I cannot forget the beauty and immense purity in that child. In fact I would say that about all the people we encountered in the mountains. It would be no exaggeration to say that they are the most beautiful and the nicest people I have met. Man was meant to be amongst the mountains, innocence loses its way as we descend into our civilized existence, concrete homes and couture, walled living.
We had arrived exhausted in the Tumling village. We were tired, but also happy to reach our first goal with cautious ease. And as we moved towards the trekkers’ hut I realized we were actually no longer in India but were in Nepal at 3000 feet, at the Singalila National Park. How easy was that cross over? The line of demarcation between two nations is simply that, just a line.
We were ushered to our Trekkers lodge/hut. It was a wooden hut that had two levels. The upper level is what we chose, as there were five beds. The lower level had lesser beds so we used that for our bags. We sat down exhausted with the weight of our wet suits and backpacks. We were told that this place had no electricity. It meant we were pretty far from our comfortable reality and were practically in the middle of nowhere. Dinner would be served early to catch what little light we had left and we would crash early to bed as we had an early start to a very long and difficult climb.

In our research we had read about a mildly alcoholic drink called Tungba that is made from fermentation of millet. It is especially popular with the central and eastern mountains. It is served in a large glass or wooden cup, with a bamboo straw and with a sieve in the end to keep the drags out. As you drink it, the drink is replenished by piping hot water served in a jug on the side. As it dilutes, the strength of Tungba diminishes. What else will 5 tired women do in the middle of Tumling but to taste the Tungba? And when we asked if we could taste some, I think we instantly earned the respect of our guides and porters. They were surprised that we knew of it and happy that we wanted to try it. Within minutes a hot jug of Tungba was sent to our room. It was refreshingly hot and had an interesting sour flavor. Few gulps of those and we were ready to survey our surroundings.
Connectivity is everything. Whether it is through airwaves and telephone lines or through hearts. People have the innate desire to connect. Never did I expect that we would be able to use our cellphones in Tumling or earn the respect of our porters with one sip of Tungba. Yes we had found network in one tiny spot, a 2 by 2 space on the edge of the valley. Vodafone tussi great ho (Vodafone you are great)! You had to stay still on that little patch to get access to a cellphone connection. I happily dialed my home number and was grateful to be able to talk to my family after such a long time.
We decided it was now time for our little chat with Nandu. The fear of the next day was on our minds. We had undertaken a difficult task of trekking in one go what many people do in two days. We were going to walk from 3000 feet to almost 12000 feet, approximately 20 kms in 9 hours (that eventually took us 12 hours or so) and we were nervous. Nandu our guide was most encouraging. He told us it’s doable and that we will have no problems reaching our next target, which was Sandakphu.
Sandakphu is the highest peak in the state of West Bengal, situated on the edge of Singalila National Park, in Darjeeling district. The best views of the peaks of Kanchenjunga or Kancehndzonga (sleeping Buddha or sleeping Shiva) and Everest can be seen from its summit.

Sandakphu means the valley of poison or 'Height of the Poison Plant', a direct reference to the profusion of the poisonous aconite plants that grow near the peak. At a height of 3636 m or 11929 feet this was the most challenging part of our journey. We would go to Sandakphu via Kal Pokhri, usually a break point for most trekkers. We were also excited, as Sandakphu was known for it ethereal beauty of magnolias, rhododendrons, primulas and other sub-alpine flowers. It also contains more than 600 varieties of orchids, the largest to be found in a single geographical area in the world. Of course we were going towards the end of the rhododendrons season so we would not see a carpet of them but we would see them in spurts. Still what a treat this would be?
Our dinner that night was an elegant affair. The food was prepared by a couple of sisters. Kesari was the older sister who runs the place. She was young but seemed so experienced. Her younger sibling, a pretty teenager helped her out. Most residents of this valley are known as the Gurung families. Most people who cater to trekkers come to live in that region only during tourist season. Come winter, they would leave and go back to their villages. Conditions were tough even now as we were approaching the end of the trekking season. We were ushered into their kitchen. A tap leaked incessantly with no hope for repair, nobody seemed to mind. We city folks wondered how so much water is wasted when it is so hard in the cities. But the overflowing tap water bothered no one else. After all the abundance of nature was with them. They receive water from the valley and returned it to the valley. One thing was for sure the harmony between nature and the locals was impeccable. Nandu talked to us about how the porters and guides picked up plastic or any waste left behind by misinformed folks. Special trips are undertaken for this very purpose to maintain the sanctity and purity of the mountains. The Government was involved in this entire process, which was quite impressive.
While our dinner table was being set up, we huddled together in the kitchen warming ourselves to the fire set up for us. We took a few pictures and settled down for a nice quiet dinner. The emergence of modern cutlery and plates amazed us and the taste of the food satisfied us. Most of the diet served to trekkers is loaded with carbohydrates. We ended up eating a lot of potatoes, noodles, momos, eggs and puris (fried Indian bread) and chocolate for dessert. Dinner ended with the fantastic and most awesome sweet tea. If you are a foodie like I am, the freshness of the food and preparation of the vegetables simply blows you away. It was almost always lightly spiced, just enough to add flavor and retain the freshness of the vegetable, a respectful tribute to nature and her produce. We were put on a vegetarian diet, as two of us were vegetarians. It made it simpler for the journey to have one type of meal. After dinner we went to bed. Using the toilet is quite a challenge when there is no electricity, no toilet paper and no flowing water. And the water is ice cold filled in a bucket. We had to take a torch and head to the bathroom. A local dog decided to guard the toilet door, making it difficult for us to enter the loo. Sleep was difficult but it managed to wake us up early to view the beauty of the valley.
We had an early start to Sandakphu. At first the trek was simple with minimal ups and downs. From a distance we were shown where we were heading. But it is again all about the journey not about the destination. We were to go to Sandakphu via Kal Pokhari (Black lake). The trail passes through Jaubari village where we turned northeast towards Sandakphu. It drops to Garibas and then for about two more hours it climbs a hill through the forest.
We had passed through a small village and found ourselves climbing downward on a fairly steep slope. After a considerable walk Nandu decided it was time for some more tea. We stopped at a tea stall at the Indo-Nepal border, known as the Garibas check post. An Indian Army posting was there. We wanted to take pictures but we were told not to photograph the army camp itself. It was not allowed. We also had to enter our names in the registry at the post. If you go to Garibas you will find our names in the register, permanently etched. It felt good to have left our prints on a piece of paper as if some history was created. It may not matter to many but it mattered to us.

The Indian army stood strong and was manned by these sturdy looking jawans. I felt proud and happy to see them there. They were friendly and asked us our names. When they found out I was a Gujarati (Gujarat is a state in the Western part of India) they called a tall jawan (soldier) and introduced him to me. He was from Gujarat and had been posted there for the past few years. He was extremely happy to talk to a fellow Gujju. I felt happy to oblige him and chatted about his family. I realized how tough their lives were, living so far away from home, away from their families. A chance meeting with someone from their area made them so happy. Small pleasures and interesting interaction. We thanked them for their bravery and dedication to our country and we walked on. The climb from Garibas post was steep, tough and extremely tiring. We ate nuts, granola bars and even a horrible energy drink to give us the strength to move on but it was exhausting. We were walking for eternity and after a point I felt delirious, not sure that I was moving my feet. I was amazed that I trudged along, dragging myself to reach Kal Pokhari. We passed some yaks. They are dark, black and furry creatures that were a cross between bulls and cows. There was some movement in the valley in terms of an occasional jeep or village person.

We arrived at Kal Pokhari at 9524 ft. Many trekkers prefer to take a break here and then head for Sandakphu. That was not part of our itinerary. We had not realized that we only had six days to complete the trek but with a halt it would be seven days. Even Nandu recommended that but was accepting of the fact that we will continue our journey. Kal Pokhari is really a tiny village with a lake that looks black at a certain angle. Perhaps that is where the name came from. It was bordered with fluttering flag. These flags make a simple rock or a small lake look like the place of god. Fluttering in sync with the bellowing wind creating a picture perfect resting ground for our tired feet. We walked a few more minutes and came across a village. A heavy fog engulfed the village and I was beginning to enjoy cutting across the fog. Felt like an actor from Bollywood again, alas no hero emerged from it but we saw a pretty European girl with a handsome porter walking through it. With a customary nod most trekkers exchange she entered a house that seemed like the lunch stop.

Soon we entered the same house too. There it was again, beautifully decorated “trekkers lodge” with wooden tables, colorful caps, a busy kitchen from where delightful aromas filled our lungs and reminded us of how hungry we were. Something was brewing in a pot. We were told it was the local whiskey made from Rhododendron flowers. Goraskoroxy. A plum red alcoholic drink made from flowers!! Again two women, who on seeing our presence hurriedly set the table, dominated the kitchen. They exchanged polite conversation with the known Nandu and immediately set the table for us. Within minutes vegetables emerged, were chopped and thrown into the pot. We sat down precariously at our table looking for blister wounds, applying bandages and soaking in the comfort of the room. Hot tea was served immediately and the sweet tea pampered our tired souls with magical intensity. Next to our table sat the pretty Norwegian girl we had met before. Her name was Tone, pronounced as toe-nay. Interestingly she too had come from Bangalore. She proceeded to tell us that she was on a three-month assignment to Bangalore and was going to head home to Norway. But before that as treat to herself she had set out on a similar trek all alone. Made me wonder if I would have ever “treated” myself to a trek all by myself. The freedom of exploration, the idea of venturing into a foreign land all by myself was unfathomable. It took me 40 years to get there, that too with a safety net of a bunch of friends, while this European in her early 20s, escorted by a porter walked in these mountains sans fear. We waste so much time in our lives listening to the voices of others, we cover ourselves with so many layers of security that we forget the difference between what is real and what is imagined. I shrugged off the feeling of remorse and was grateful that I at least had this opportunity. We invited Tone to chat with us and basked in the company of that free spirit. We also met a German couple who lauded us for walking all the way from Tumling to Sandakphu without an over night stay. I became wary of what was to come next. Was it tough? Can we do it? We questioned Nandu again and he agreed that the last 20 minutes were tough but we can do it.
After a nice long stop, hot lunch and some shopping in the local store for caps, and saying our goodbyes to our new acquaintances, we set off to the second part of our difficult journey. The weather was starting to get nippy. Dark clouds emerged slowly, ominous of the road ahead.

After a long walk we stopped at a rock as we saw one of our porters and Nandu trying to get coverage. Good old Vonage worked here too, again in the middle of nowhere. I think the presence of network coverage made me feel safe. Even though it appeared as though we were in the middle of nowhere there was network which meant we were not too far from life as we know it in the cities. We made our calls to the families. Listened to the birds in the mountains and gazed at that last 20 minute walk ahead of us. As we began walking again, it started drizzling and the wind bellowed. Beautiful pink rhododendrons and green grass surrounded us. We were at the same height as the clouds. They walked with us. What amazing company that was. After a long walk of nearly 11 hours we finally reached a point from where we saw on top of the mountain, our lodges. We were at the dreaded last 20 minutes of this trek. The seriously dreaded last 20 minutes. Energy was sapping away and it felt impossible to do this climb. The porters walked on slowly. Nandu encouraged us from the top. Of course he was already past that climb. He mentioned to us that he found it harder to walk on flat ground and steep slopes were easier and interesting. At least you can create an interesting style, strategy and plan to work around the slope, he said. Flat ground was monotonous and boring. Go figure!
The slope was so steep that at one point I felt I was at an angle where I could be pulled back and dropped behind instead of surging ahead. I was walking against gravity. The twenty minutes were by then almost 40 and I had lost every ounce of my energy to go any further. My body rebelled against this climb. I had to urge my mind to control this scenario. By now we were taking a full one-minute for each step. We did make it somehow. We knew we would. At last we reached the top exhausted and almost delirious.
Arrangements were being made as to where we would be staying. We didn't care; we were cold, tired, blistered out and ready to crash under a tree if needed. It was getting dark; we had to make it inside the lodge. After much deliberation we were shown our rooms. The first thing we did was to remove our shoes. Release our feet from the 12 hours of shoe imprisonment. I have never loved my feet so tenderly as I did that night. I caressed it like a mother cradling her baby. They were sore, sorry and slightly shrunk in those trekking shoes. Everyone loves freedom; shackles are no one’s friends, not even feet’s I discovered. Perhaps the famous painter M.F. Husain felt this way his entire life, which is why he never wore any shoes. People ridiculed him for that but I understood him that night.

An attempt was made to light firewood in the room by the porters. But it appeared as though there was no vent inside the fireplace. There was more smoke in the room than fire, which would have seemed hilarious some other time but it was so cold that we welcomed the smoke too. That night we were served popcorn and garlic soup. Apparently you can fight altitude sickness with those. We were served potatoes and noodle soup. We ate quietly, grateful for the warm dinner. All of us huddled back to our room. We layered ourselves with a number of blankets and slept early.

We had to wake up early to get the best view of Kanchenjunga. We were excited about the prospect of seeing the mighty mountain. Kanchenjunga, “The Five treasures of Snow” is the third highest mountain in the world after Everest and K2. We were told that Darjeeling was famous for its views of the Kanchenjunga. It would be a short trip to a viewpoint for us to see it from there. But no we walked over 12 hours to reach Sandakphu in the cold, bitter, windy weather to see the mountain. After all there is no magic without the romance. There is no music without sound; there is no gain with out pain. We learnt that instantly when at 4:30 am we woke to see the glimpse of the third highest mountain of the world standing before us, hidden amongst clouds, slightly peeking. Alas we did not see it in all its glory but we managed to see the range of the mountains, as if standing guard in the sky protecting the mighty Kanchenjunga from the evil eyes of poor mortals like us below. Its majestic presence gave us a glimpse of heaven for a few fleeting moments before the clouds draped their master. You cannot capture fleeting rays of a shining moonlight; you can only feel its presence. That was how the mountain ranges affected us. We tried to capture it with our cameras but it was like a beautiful woman in a veil standing before us but hiding her face. We felt the beauty but missed the full view. We were disappointed. So was Nandu, he very much wanted us to see the great mountain in all its glory. We had come to this place at the end of the season when the rain clouds had begun to gather and the rhododendrons had begun to fade away, where the colorful valley was turning monochromatic in its appearance like a dried flower. But it was nevertheless beautiful. I remember going to see the grand Taj Mahal several years ago. As I stood near the terrace of the Agra Fort where the great Shah Jahan was imprisoned, one could feel the presence of the emperor watching helplessly at the memorial of his beautiful wife, Mumtaz Mahal. He pined for his love and held on to her image through the beauty of the Taj Mahal he built for her. I decided then and there that one day I would see the Kanchenjunga and capture its beauty in my heart. Another important event in my bucket list… entered. We did not feel too disappointed because the valley never disappoints you. That is nature for you. It only rewards you with its immense beauty.

Once more we found a point where the network connected us to our loved ones. I was very emotionally charged as I spoke to my kids about what I saw. I felt triumph at the climb. A new chapter had opened, a new bug was bitten and a new course was chalked for the way my life was going to shape. I basked in that excitement. With this renewed energy the next course of plans was drawn.

After completing the hardest part of the trek our spirits were up. We felt good about what we had accomplished and now it was the “bring it on” attitude that pushed us ahead. Basically Sandakphu to Phalut is literally moving from one peak to another. While Sandakphu stands at 3636 m (11,929 feet), Phalut is located at 3600m (11,811 feet). It seemed that it would mainly be flat with moderate climbing and the last part would be a steeper climb.
As we started out the day was brighter and clearer. We were told that Phalut, our next destination, would have the most basic accommodations. After camping out in trekker’s huts for three days and the thought of no shower for another two days was beginning to get to us. In fact one of our team members, Nishrin had badly blistered her toe. Her knees were in pain, her leg was swollen and she badly needed a break. As we started the walk a jeep passed us by. It stopped ahead and a man emerged from it. He was Mr. Suman a photographer and was accompanied by another person and the driver. He greeted us in a friendly manner and started chatting with us asking us what we were doing there. He also shared with us that he was a photographer looking for the best spots to shoot pictures for a book he was co-authoring. He was also heading for a day trip towards Phalut. He offered to give our injured friend a ride to Phalut, which she gratefully accepted. Of course we discussed it amongst ourselves, unsure if it would be safe to send her with a bunch of strangers. But Mr. Suman’s endearing smile was quite encouraging and the blister had done great damage to our fellow trekker. So the decision was made.
We found out later that the other person in the jeep was Tenzing, a Green Oscar winner. The Green Oscar award is an award that is given annually by Whitley fund for nature (WFN) to recognize and celebrate effective national and regional conservation leaders across the globe. Tenzing had helped conserve four red Pandas, set them back into the wild and was tracking their progress. For this magnificent effort he was awarded the Green Oscar award. Who would have thought that we would chance upon such brilliant nature lovers on this personal journey?
You spend a few days in the mountains and you instantly understand why it is important for us to conserve our environment. You can understand the passion nature conservationists have in order to save our planet. You also wonder why enough attention is not paid to what is important. A plastic wrapper fallen on these grounds seems so out of place. I wish we could all see the destruction plastic and other materials that damage the environment make to our earth. We can conserve this planet in so many ways. A simple start would be by reducing the use of plastic. Why not carry your own bag to the grocery store? I made a mental note to do that as soon as I returned to Bangalore. I concluded that to understand you must experience, therefore a trip to the mountains is a must for all! Let nature tell you her story and you will come back wishing you had started earlier. Immersing ourselves in our concrete spaces only shows us the grey and we totally miss the green.

With our injured team member tucked away in the jeep, the rest of us took charge of our walking sticks and moved on. The trek from Sandakphu to Phalut was absolutely an eye candy. Lush green meadows, melodious birds, carpets of rhododendrons, slightly overcast sky, pleasant weather, valleys inhabited by tall trees and most importantly flat ground. We had begun to actually enjoy the view rather than focus on our lung capacity. We stopped at several spots because we saw interesting activities amongst birds. They were small, red, blue and yellow birds that flitted amongst each other chirping excitedly. The Singalila National park has over 120 species recorded including many rare and exotic species like
The Scarlet Minivet, Kalij Pheasant, Blood Pheasant, Satyr Tragopan, Brown and Fulvous Parrtobills, Bulbuls, pigeons, doves, sibia, minivet, magpie, cuckoo, hornbills, Kaleej pheasants, sparrows, Eurasian Cuckoo, White Collared Thrush, Indian Black Eagle and a large number of migratory birds. The hills had come alive with the sound of these birds. I know what Julie Andrews meant when she sang that song. It was a vibrant and charged up environment. The birds were communicating with each other in some way. There was a clear pattern of that. Almost like they were holding a council meeting exchanging tweets (yeah they started tweeting way before we did) and chirps. These musical maestros were joined by the vibrant colors of orchids, magnolia, rhododendrons and millions of species that added beauty to the lush landscape. A month or two earlier and we would have seen more color, that would have been an unimaginable treat.
The landscape changed as we moved from flat ground to a climb again.
Through out the trek our group more or less split into pairs mostly due to pace. We also were starting to see more of the porters. They were warming up to us and also shorter routes were diminishing. There was just one path. We were getting tired. A badly needed break came with a delightful encounter with Mr. Suman again. He was returning from Phalut after scouting the area. He gave us some encouraging words and told us we were quite close to our next stop. He also told us that we had already completed the toughest part of the trek, which was a relief to hear and he also assured us that our friend Nishrin had reached safely at the trekkers hut and was doing well. What a nice guy, we almost felt ashamed we had doubts about his entourage. We continued to our hut, which was basically a small round room with a table in the center and wooden benches around the room. It was just enough to drop our tired bodies and heavy bags on. We were served boiled eggs, chocolates (now a regular feature, eaten unabashedly) and potatoes. We ate it quietly, resting our tired bodies in a circular silence. We still had quite a bit of ground to cover so with our rejuvenated spirits we set off again towards Phalut.

The landscape was outstanding, the slight drizzle refreshing, the yaks a regular feature and our only companions in the journey as we moved on. The consistent motion of the scattered yaks, pulling out grass from this beautiful landscape was intriguing. Grass is their only sustenance. Their warm, fuzzy fur their only protection against the brutal cold wind. They are unperturbed by any passersby, their eyes focusing on the grass that feeds them. They stand unsusceptible between the moving clouds above them and the meager, barren plateau below. The only time they stand close to each other is when there is a snowstorm. The vulnerability of this strong, massive beast comes to light only then, when they huddle. Else they are perfectly happy, asserting their individuality and marking their presence in a picture perfect frame designed by nature. We respectfully passed them, our steps getting weary as we started our climb again. Our groups were scattered by now, sort of like the yaks. There is no fear, no hurry and no schedule to meet. Slow, rhythmic steps, gentle wind and scenic beauty together carried us forward. We started to see our destination. It seemed close but still took us couple hours more to reach. The presence of people sitting on top was encouraging and we moved on.

As we finally reached the top, a sense of emotion overcame me as I reached Phalut. A fair number of hours spent in the company of this plateau and then the reintroduction to reality was like being woken up with a jerk. I felt tears on my cheeks and was confused why they rolled. My battle between my own weaknesses and my endurance evoked a result I never expected. Years of personal struggles, inert city life and the fatigue of the climb rolled out tears of humility. I felt humbled, undefeated like I had just climbed the Himalayas. It was not a competition of heights but that of your beliefs and your struggles. Reaching the top is not what fulfills you; it is the gathering of your inner struggles and then dumping them over the top of the plateau that gives birth to the “I did it” moment. The purpose of this trip was now clear to me. I embraced it with all my heart. I was overjoyed and happy.
We regrouped and got into the decorum of details. Sorting the beds, settling the bags, checking out the kitchen and the staff, figuring out where the bathrooms are. A ritual we do everywhere we stop for a night in the trekkers lodge. This was certainly the most basic hut and the staff seemed the most poor. We learnt that the staff members were villagers who came to this lodge during tourist season and stayed here for three months, enduring the cold, windy place. I doubt they even bathed whilst here. Resources were limited. The mattresses were dirty, torn and smelly. But we were grateful for a warm room and hot food and the fire inside the kitchen. We were originally given two rooms, which meant we would be divided for the night. Fortunately the stink in one of the rooms and the extreme cold weather helped us decide that we need to huddle in one room and we got all five beds into this one room and did just that.
There was a point near our trekkers lodge from where Everest could be sighted. Two of our friends decided they would walk up to that point and see it. I was too exhausted to join, happy to succumb to my fatigue and the need to rest near the fire. They came back excitedly, reporting they had seen the great mountain and also pictured it. I felt bad not making the effort but the moment had passed. The mountain took yet another promise from me to return and get an audience. All of us sat at the edge of the mountain that evening, looking at the valley below us. We were satiated with the idea that we had completed the most difficult task of this trek, which was reaching Sandakphu and Phalut, the two highest points. The journey from here on would be easier and towards home. I was thoroughly enjoying the company of my friends. We kicked our legs in the air at the ledge where we were sitting. It was as if we soared over the clouds that were floating below us and we could call out to the yaks that grazed in the valley below. We did a Leonardo DiCaprio’s cheesy line, “I’m the king of the world!” over that ledge. Nobody heard us but we didn't care. We were like a bunch of kids, laughing and enjoying ourselves, drowning in our own merriment. In fact a local joined us delighted at this outburst of happiness and he wagged his tail at our hysteric display. Happiness is more contagious than misery. It was a happy time and we all spoke to our families once again from that one point on the ledge that had network. Did I say thank you Vodafone enough times?

Darkness was hitting the mountain and it was time to sit for dinner. There was no electricity, no running water. We once again huddled like yaks in a snowstorm, gathering together and eating our food. Again a delicious meal was served at a proper table. We put some of our torches on so we could actually see what we ate, reminding us of the cramped resources of this trekkers lodge. We returned to our room and settled for the night. It was quiet, isolated and very cold. We had to put on a number of layers of clothing before we went to bed.
Our friend Nishrin of course had her own night ritual, at every lodge. She spent innumerable minutes on her night routine. Apart from the occasional cold creams on the face, application and face cleansing, she also focused on dressing her feet, applying blister cream, Vaseline, putting on one layer of socks and then another, applying Vicks to the forehead, nose and chest besides adding layers of clothing to her including a monkey cap, sweaters and shawls. There was not a single part of her body that was not covered except her face. We all sat and watched in silent awe at her diligence in the process. Such discipline, regimen and dedication were worth a mention. On the other hand my biggest worry that night was, god I hope she doesn’t have to pee! To take out all the layers and get out of that stinky bed would be a nightmare and time consuming! I guess god was too busy that night and the trip in the dark to the bathroom had to be made by her and most of us.
Sleep did not come too easily that night like all the other nights. We were up bright and early and had to gather our stuff and head to our next destination, which was Rammam. Shobha and I decided we would give Everest another shot. We knew our efforts were mostly futile as the clouds gathered. But we had come all this way for an audience with the mighty mountain and we would have to try. We spent a good half hour along with our two guides in vain. It was very disappointing as that was the last hope and the last point where we could see Everest. We bid our good byes, tipped the staff and left for Rammam via Gorkhey at 7500 feet.

Having the perception that the toughest part of the journey is over is dangerous. We assumed going downhill would be a walk in the park. But it is far from the truth. Going downhill is equally challenging as it is hard on the knees and takes away any form of control from you. I remember during one of the tough climbs to Sandakphu, Nandu said he preferred walking uphill. It is more interesting than walking on a straight road, he said. I thought it was easy for a mountain man to say that but for a city girl it is literally an uphill task. But he was right. When you walk uphill, the tough part is the physical strength and the pressure it puts on the hamstrings and quads, but you still exercise some control to that climb. When you go downhill the road leads you. It takes twice the effort to put brakes on a trip down the slopes, that too without damaging your knees. We set off realizing soon enough that this was not going to be easy. The first few kilometers were cautious with some pauses to admire the valley around us. It was drizzling when we left and the vegetation was initially thick. It was like a walk in the jungle. We passed tall pine (perhaps fir, birch trees) fallen chestnuts, black and mustard colored mushrooms, colorful but fading rhododendrons and of course a ton of orchids hanging from the trees.

In a city life you always see common flowers like geraniums, roses, tuberoses at a flower shop, orchids are always displayed as rare and expensive items. The interesting thing about orchids is that it is not as rare as we thought it to be especially in the Nepal region. There are more than 20,000 species of orchids in the world, found mostly in the tropics. In fact, according to Wikipedia, ‘the number of orchid species equals more than twice the number of bird species, and about four times the number of mammal species. It also encompasses about 6–11% of all seed plants.’ Another reason why we saw so many of them as I found out later, was that the world's richest concentration of orchid varieties is found in the Himalayan region of Nepal. About 350 species of wild orchids are found here. Orchids can be seen growing out of the sides of trees and can be recognized by their large flowers and woody stems. The Orchidaceae family is quite vast and these plants are epiphytes, that is plants that grow on top of other organisms in order to survive. The moist environment of this region makes this a paradise for these beauties. We mostly saw the white and purple variety and basked in the ethereal beauty of these celestial gems created by nature. It was truly a botanist’s paradise. The way the orchids adorned these trees here, it reminded me of the entrance to an Indian wedding. Sprout of orchids are displayed quite commonly at the entry foyer area in many Indian weddings. We were of course the guest invitees walking between the aisles of orchid decorations! It was simply a superb and breathtaking view for the eyes.
By this time, our group had completely scattered. There were three of us that got separated from the group. In fact the other group was also further dichotomized. We had reached a point in our trek where we had to figure out whether to turn to the right side or the left side of the road. Suddenly the jungle didn’t seem so friendly any more. Few moments of fear gripped us. And to add to it, a group of locals approached us. There were villagers passing us by. A young, adult group that seemed amused at our presence. Fear is a very interesting thing. When it enters your mind, it gives birth to imagination. Very negative imagination, sort of like a bad dream, where you see the worst. These innocent passersby turned into evil conniving gremlins with treacherous and murderous eyes that surveyed us with heinous intentions. We wished we were with the others and wondered why they abandoned us. We walked quietly allowing them to pass by. They were really doing just that. Passing us by! We chided ourselves to succumb to such paranoia but fear finds a permanent place in conditioned minds. We were now worried and thought we were lost. We picked the most logical route and walked another half hour. We were going downward but it could be anywhere and probably in the wrong direction. The thought of retracing our steps and walking all the way back seemed tiresome and wasted. We made plans of what to do if we were in the wrong direction creating several solutions with many permutations and combinations. Ultimately, we decided to enjoy this part of the trek. Nature simply cajoled us to.

The enigma of this valley lies in its ever-changing form. As we descended, the landscape changed once again. From tall evergreen trees, rhododendrons and orchids the scenery germinated into a bamboo drive. Narrow winding avenues supported by thousands of beautiful bamboo glades. I felt like I was no longer in India or Nepal but had migrated to a Buddhist valley or in Bali. An architectural delight and an exotic oriental passage created by nature.
The bamboo plant known to us as a source of good luck (my feeble knowledge of Zen) is also a great source of food for the red pandas often found here in the valley. We hoped against hope to meet this shy solitary animal here. A red panda is slightly larger than a cat and is mostly sedentary during the daytime. They are not considered endangered but vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources. Unfortunately the effects of deforestation pose a threat to these exotic animals. Once again we walked in shame at our complete apathy towards our own planet.
Even though we were basking in the beauty of the bamboo drive we were getting increasingly concerned about being lost. There is literally no one in this area. Even the passersby disappeared amongst trees and we were reminded of our isolation. Our fear turned into anger now as we felt the guides and porters should have been with us. Isn't that the reason why we pay them, we argued? We tried shouting out names of our other companions hoping some one would hear us but besides a few rustles in the trees it seemed no one heard us. Finally after what seemed like hours we saw one part of our group taking a break amongst the bamboo glades. Nandu and two porters along with our friend Jumana were resting. All the time we spent fretting about the route and the fear of getting lost cumulatively surged in my head and I was angry. I lost my cool and in my outburst made it abundantly clear that we expected to be escorted by our guides not abandoned. We shared our fear of going in the wrong direction and what a waste of time and energy it would have been if we were lost? Nandu looked at me, a bit shocked at my outburst. Even Jumana was taken by surprise. Nandu took a couple seconds and then finally in his calm soft voice said, “we are truly sorry and we will make sure you are never left alone again”. The simplicity of his words made me ashamed of myself. There really is only one way down and getting lost really is improbable but logic once again did not serve fear. I expected him to argue with me about that and he very well could have but he chose not to. This was yet another lesson in humility that our guide Nandu taught us. He could have easily told me there is only one way but he chose instead in his peaceful mountain style to respect my fear and give me words of assurance. He ultimately won in this battle of egos with his strong silent acceptance of my shortcomings. He chose silence versus an opportunity to chide me for my wasted anger. Needless to say we all walked silently there after and I particularly guilty of my abrasive words towards this gentle soul walked with heavy steps.

The road towards Gorkhey now became difficult. There was now very little road left but instead we had to negotiate layers and uneven steps and simply slippery mud. It was steep and the knees definitely took a beating. Blisters were acting up and it was getting harder to move on. Most of the time we spent sliding down, as it was easier than walking.

During this walk we realized one porter stayed with us all the time (probably instructed by Nandu after my miffed attitude). And that was Gyalgal Sherpa, a young handsome singer-guide who, throughout the trip, sang numerous songs, some even Bollywood for our entertainment. He stayed close, kept his distance from us in terms of conversation, but smiled frequently. This trip to him was to make some pocket money, he told us later. He played football and was very good at it and was one of the best in his village, so he claimed. He was a big fan of Baichung Bhutia, a torchbearer of Indian football, and hoped to be like him one day. A boy from a village, carrying heavy bags through mountains for pocket money and dreaming big. The perception of a porter changed dramatically with the exchange of a few words. He almost became human with dreams and feelings.

He carried our heavy bags like they were light accessories on his back. He was probably in his early twenties or even younger and very spirited. In fact the most spirited of all the porters and with the most beautiful voice. We all felt he could actually be a lead singer in a band or even go for a music show. We told him that and he laughed with disbelief. I must say his laughter was infectious and gave us the impetus to move on. That and his melodious voice that was so part of this valley. He totally belonged to these mountains and we wished he would never go to the city and get corrupted by its unnecessary bling. The purity of his talent was enhanced in this landscape. It was as if his voice belonged to the mountains, was a big part of it and could never leave.
He helped us at every slip and bend and patiently supported our slow pace. After a never-ending trip downhill, the treacherous landscape opened into another valley filled with surreal beauty. Down below we could see flat land created by man for farming purposes, surrounded by a wall of thick green wood. A few houses were scattered unceremoniously marking the presence of civilization in this wilderness. Like a thick cluster of trees swept away to create an impression for mankind. It was beautiful and their presence seems more necessary than an invasion.
We were excited that a break was finally coming for us. We were tired and our feet complained and hunger pleaded with us. But it would be few more minutes before we reached that area. As we approached the village we could see beautiful plants with yellow flowers fluttering in the wind. We were told this was mustard. We were also told that the farmers grew three layers of plants around this area. Mustard and potatoes among other vegetables were planted so that they harvest at different times and assured the availability of food through out the season. The urgency to reach our break pushed us forward. As we moved downward we heard the gushing sound of a river nearby. A river that probably prompted the need to create a habitat here surrounded the village. There is always a cluster of homes, farms and life around water. Even in the most treacherous jungle where wild animals flock together peacefully to quench their thirst. Water bodies form a very important part of any life dwelling. This village was no exception. As we neared the village we saw clusters of red color hiding amongst the fluttering grass and the yellow mustard plant. To our delight they were small strawberries. We picked them cheerfully as we moved downward. It felt as exotic like wine tasting in Napa Valley, in a weird unsophisticated manner of speaking. We did not care if the strawberries were cleaned or washed. There was no fear of heavy pesticides or danger of chemical invasion. These were fruits of nature, growing in their wildest form, virgin, untouched and absolutely delightful in their taste. We ate those succulent red bodies cheerfully and felt relaxed, instantly.
We finally reached our first stop in hours. Our first instinct was to remove our shoes. But it began drizzling and we were ushered into a small room that was actually a boarding lodge. The room was warm and had cots with clean sheets and after a long time we saw a clean bathroom and we were so happy that that we felt completely at ease. The feeling of fresh clean water on our faces elevated our spirits. The porters brought in a table for us to eat at. We were starving by now. We were served soupy noodles topped with chopped tomatoes, onions and fresh sprigs of cilantro. The aroma, the presentation, the colors could beat any five star service in any country. It was gorgeous and very tasty. We ate up, happy and satisfied, our spirits appeased, our souls rested. We gathered around and took pictures of this beautiful place. Felt really alive in these surroundings as if everything else was unreal.
The notion and the need to feel alive is such a paradox. Being alive is literally being not dead. We get bogged down with routine and boredom until we come across situations or adventures that make us “feel” alive. Stay with me on this one for a second. Daily routines don’t make us feel alive. Living a monotonous life that does not satisfy our own needs without guilt or conscience does not make us feel alive. Doing what others expect us to do or following rules made by others don’t make us feel alive. Being religious because of our fear of god and because everyone does it does not make us alive. All these do is make us feel safe but not alive. So to be alive we have to live unconditionally, without confinement, borderless and free.
Being unapologetic of your own existence and doing what you love to do; pushing the envelope when society demands sticking to the norm; climbing a mountain, jumping from a plane, coming close to death, questioning everything, fearing the worst yet succumbing to our own temptations because it feels right makes us feel alive. People who question the ordinary are deemed heroes yet those who don’t are dead men walking. Our entire lives are spent on judgment and impressions but not on failures. Why can’t we fail? If we do fail its at least our own doing, yet in the eyes of others its unacceptable. Our life is meant for exploration and discovery. It has a quest but it does not have to have a desired result. Our minds are reticent to what falls off the norm but when we are put in that situation we feel alive.
We feel alive in these death-defying situations because we become aware of our own existence, of our own breath, of how little time we really have on this earth, of a higher power around us. We become alive because we no longer are slaves of the expectation of others. We are alive because we finally grab the opportunity to think out of the box. Box – what a terrible thing to do to ourselves. Cars, houses, buildings, barns, coops, zoos, prisons and even coffins are all boxes. I feel claustrophobic just typing these words, but we live in these everyday.
I took a deep breath of this free and alive valley and filled my lungs with the feeling of being alive. It felt great. I want more such moments when I can get a refill on feeling alive. But I do appreciate the routine too. You need the bad to feel the presence of good. But at that moment I only felt alive and I can say easily, so did the rest of the group.
We crossed the bridge and disappeared inside a thick forest of tall evergreen trees. Nature embraced us once more and we began our trek to Rammam. We saw a number of ferns in the path that acted as supportive fillers to the tall trees. Our guide told us that kids living in Gorkhey have to walk each day twice to Rammam to attend secondary school. The road was dense, solitary and quite a walk. I could not imagine walking twice on this road every single day at that age to get a decent education. Several kids drop out after primary school because it is too much effort. While you can ponder over how these kids do this on a daily basis, the funny thing about human existence is that we are pretty much like water. We mold ourselves to the vessel (read environment) we are in.
We walked on, passing thick bushes, little streams, broken bridges and leeches. Yes there were leeches in these parts. I discovered one on my pants and expertly brushed it aside. Few days in the forest and nothing can deter you. You just move on. This was one thing common with city life.
As we walked on, the ground started getting flatter. As we followed the guide in silence, absorbing everything, it started raining and we brought out our ponchos again. We stopped asking how far we were, just walking ahead. Nandu told us it would be another couple hours. It set the expectation and we proceeded.
We came upon an open area in which stood a school with blue and white colored walls that stood on a concrete wall. It blended so well in this green valley. The school was closed and there was no sign of any life. Opposite the school was a railing and we stood there for a few minutes. Nandu told us that the valley on the opposite side of where we stood was Sikkim. We were at the border of West Bengal and Sikkim. Out of nowhere we were standing at the border of another state. Another line dividing a country with little difference in its natural environment but loads in its political scene. We walked further and the side of the road was lined with a psychedelic mosaic of fluttering flowers. They were singing as we passed them by, one couldn’t help but smile at its simplistic beauty. Along that path we passed several local people who looked at us curiously. By now we were used to that. We came upon a Buddhist monastery that seemed like it was closed. We saw the fluttering flags around it and smiled at its familiarity. The monastery had a backdrop of a beautiful valley. Stunning and ethereal, it made its presence felt to all of us. We wished we could have gone in but we had to keep walking. Right next to the monastery was a lodging and Nandu turned to us and announced, “We have arrived at Rammam”. We were shocked and pleasantly surprised, as we had resigned to another two hours of walking. The mountain man had been joking with us. He knew this would make us very happy. And it did.
We arrived at the lodge with full energy and excitement. We were taken to our rooms and we settled down quickly. We got two rooms this time. One room had three beds in it joined close together and the other with two beds. The room also had plug points/chargers, which meant we could charge our phones and camera. More excitement. Our lives are so governed by these gadgets, but they were important. Connecting with our families after hours of walking seems so right and felt so good. Also watching each of us talking excitedly to our kids telling them what mommy had been up to reminded us of what our current life’s focus was. We were moms first no matter what the situation, what the dreams and aspirations, what the place was. The chatter of our loved ones filled our hearts with emotions that is hard to express in words. Satiated with motherly love, we reverted back to reality and got ready for dinner. First we explored the bathrooms as we always did. They were a distance away and the rain was coming down hard. We had to arm ourselves with torches to use the toilets. We headed to the dining area. It was a modern room filled with rugs, pictures, dining sets and cutlery. It was cozy, neat and surprisingly quite modern. It was apparent now that we were moving away from the mountains and closer to modern times. Dinner included a more elaborate meal. There were no noodles or potatoes instead we had Okra and some other vegetables with daal (lentils), rice and roti (Indian bread). There was also the customary sweet tea. It was a wonderful meal again. We chatted with the locals and also our guide and porters who stood by us while we ate, in case we needed anything. It sounds crass to say they were such professionals, because they seemed to do it with little expectation. After the dinner we headed back to our rooms and settled down for the night. Tomorrow would be the last day of our trek. There was much to think about as we neared the end of our journey. While many of my thoughts were with my children, I also wondered of the alone time I had and what I gained during these few days. The time spent with my close girl friends, the conversations, the struggles, the endurance and the will power we exercised during this trip. With my mind filled with so many thoughts I slept well that night and woke up early the next day.
We started our journey to the last lodging of our trip, which was in Srikhola. Our steps were now easier, knowing that this was the last day of the trek. Five days of walking, tough weather, away from loved ones, physical and mental struggles and no bath was taking its toll. It was a really easy walk and we reminisced over the last few days feeling happy and extremely energetic. The rocky roads, the broken bridges, the trickling streams, the fluttering ferns, the tall trees, the spontaneous bouquets of wildflowers, the all familiar burst of colors were all part of our posse now. We arrived after sometime at the all-familiar brightly colored teashop once again. Houses in the alpine regions are often painted with bright colors. There is a very good reason for that. These primary colors brighten dark cold days and provide a spectacular contrast to the grays and whites. The colors of spring perhaps inspire such colors. It was of course around springtime and we were there. I was grateful for this moment to be able to experience this all.
We gathered in a small wooden room waiting for our tea. Shobha’s camera was not functioning properly and we were not able to figure out why. A few calls were made; some Google searches were done to get to the root of the problem. We all giggled at this paradox, there we were in the middle of a valley, surrounded by nature and we were struggling with technology. Nishrin made some calls to her photography buddy at the Fashion Institute she taught in and he gave some tips on how to resolve the problem and also set up a time to take a look at the camera. While all this was getting done, our tea arrived and our porters stared at us during all our telephonic conversations and discussions. They probably wondered what the fuss was all about. The sweet tea filled our souls with some mountain energy and we moved on.
We arrived at Srikhola, our last stop before we returned to Darjeeling. This was the Goparma lodge, at 1800 meters or around 5900 feet. It was a brightly colored green lodge with a little shop in the front. Little packets of chips and mouth fresheners were hanging on the top of the shop. Neatly lined biscuits and cookies were stacked in the front glass covered cabinet. In the front were jars filled with cupcakes, candy and other eateries. It was an all-familiar shop often seen in small towns and cities. The interior of the lodge was interesting as the décor consisted of brass jugs neatly lined on a shelf with glasses and cups. The walls were decorated with neat posters of the Singalila National Park, brightly colored calendars and photographs. There were steps that led to neatly kept tables and chair. Like a small café with a window overlooking a river in the background.

The exterior of the lodge had a line of hanging flower baskets. These never fail to impress and really bring out the beauty of the valley. Our rooms were to the extreme left side of the lodge next to a running toilet. Again the leaking faucet seen here that nobody seemed to bother to fix. The room was large and had enough space for all five of us to fit and our bags to be placed. It overlooked the river and seemed comfortable enough. We agreed to settle down here. Our craving for that alcoholic drink Tungba returned. After all we had completed our moderate trek with vigor and pain and it was time to celebrate. The porters who always appreciated our desire to taste this drink seemed eager to please us again. The only problem was the drink had to be fetched from a village half hour away. No problem they said and two of them took off to look for it.
Jumana had been limping a bit on the way to Srikhola and now we knew why. She had a huge blister on her feet and it was extremely painful. She hardly complained and only when we saw the layers of socks and shoes come out did we see the wretched thing. It looked pretty bad and needed to be taken care of.
Once again we Googled the solution to treating large blisters and found out that its best to drain out the fluid with a sterilized pin or needle and clean it up. If the blister is small its best to apply petroleum jelly and leave it but if it is large it has to be popped and fluid drained and then covered with a blister plaster. She did that and patched it up. We then headed to the café and had our fill of noodles and tea, relaxed and admired the valley behind us. Our porters in the meantime used this time to wash their clothes in the river. There was a group of young boys who looked like they had bunked classes, picked up some booze and cigarettes and were trying to fish in the river. They were careless, carefree and wild, much like the valley. The water was freezing cold and I could not even imagine dipping my feet in it. But these guys were jumping in it as if on a dare. Kids at this age always seem eager to prove their mettle. I smiled at this carefree energy, a little saddened at the time gone by for me, almost wishing for a moment I could have that time back. But time waits for no one and we need to use it wisely. And I did. We all headed for the river too.

I found myself sitting on a large rock. I laid down on it staring at the blue sky above me. Shobha also joined me and we both stared. It was magical. I had my moment. Friends basking in the company of the flowing river with nothing to care about, except for the moment. At times like this your best memories come alive. I remembered my college days, those fun filled carefree days where all we had to worry about was to get to class on time, take those ‘cutting chai’ breaks, discuss cases or homework, plan the movies and bunk classes, pat the familiar guy in the cafeteria on the back and eat fried fritters, listen to popular music and sing badly, pull pranks and discuss cute boys. I know I had a smile and yet another memory I will never forget.
That evening we took some pictures with our group. The porters, the guide and us. Everyone was now relaxed as the journey was coming to an end. Our entourage of porters was very interesting. Of these one of them was like superman. We called him that because he carried not one but two heavy bags during the entire trip. Chang was the oldest of the porters and the strongest. He also loved drinking we discovered. While we drank small sips of the Tungba, he could drink the whole jug alone. We also had Tashi who actually had fever during one of the days but again we did not know. Then there was Tsherang Sherpa, a thirty something guy with wife and kids. He had sad eyes and was always quiet. During the end of the trip we found out that he was considering going to the Middle East to look for work and money. A journey far out from the mountains all the way to the East. A demographic so different he would be completely lost and so far away from his family. We all tried to dissuade him to do something else and not take this job. We all felt their desperation and the poverty that was part of their lives. Their smiling faces hid their woes but their eyes told a different tale.

We also met another guide at the Goparma lodge who was escorting some foreigners on a trekking expedition. He knew Nandu very well and was very amiable and chatty. They were making momos and he invited us to learn the art of making momos. The porters did it with such ease while we struggled with it but managed to make decent momos. The art of sealing the momos lies in the fingers. How to hold these delicate, moist, cabbage stuffed dough and pinch them at the right spots to create designer momos, was taught to us by these lively porters. The last evening was filled with momo making and Tungba drinking followed by hot sweet tea. Food prepared in the valley is made with a lot of respect for nature. You never add flavors that overwhelm the purity of the vegetable. You lightly spice it with garlic, onion and ginger with minimal salt and spices. Even the chutneys and dips have a light chilli flavor.

The return to Darjeeling was fairly easy and we walked along the border of Sikkim. The valley was fading, flat land was returning, shops emerged out of nowhere, civilization entered and reality hit. We were now in Rimbick. We stopped here once again for lunch. Eating hot delicious aloo parathas (stuffed potato bread), mint chutney and the fact that we were going home got us excited. We shopped in the local market, bought some knick-knacks to remind us of that area with us.

It was also time for some goodbyes. Our porters were not going further to Darjeeling. Only Nandu our guide and Raju our driver would drive with us to Darjeeling. It felt almost sad to leave them. In those six days we started as strangers and were parting as comrades. We wished them a good life, offered some tips that they gladly accepted and we drove off towards the city. The ride back was quiet and almost pensive. After a long needed shower we stepped out to do some shopping in the streets of Darjeeling. Then we ate some delicious local food that included momos and Phalay bread and we headed back to the Snowlion homestay. That would be our last night in Darjeeling. It wasn’t time to reflect just yet. We had bags to pack, drive to Bagdogra and take our flights and go our separate ways. It was also time to say goodbye to Nandu. A petite man with such depth of character, such intense control of emotions, a man affluent with patience, Nandu had it all. Walking through these mountains so many times in the year, meeting different people, weathering different climates, his wrinkles reflected peace and happiness in ways many of us can never achieve. His smile was genuine, his concern real, there seemed nothing fake about him. Even when we came at the point of tipping him for his efforts it was awkward to pay him, but he accepted it with grace and poise and thanked us for the business. I remember a conversation I had with him when I asked him what he did when he was not working as a guide. He laughed and said he watched a lot of TV. Movies, I asked? No he winked, I watch the Discovery Channel and the National Geographic episodes. He found them fascinating and was amazed at how vast nature was and how passionate people are about it in the other parts of the world. While he said this I felt strange because I live in a completely different world, where nature or environment means very little to a lot of us. Or we don’t think much of it.
He spoke to Raju in their local language and wished us luck. We knew now that our trip was really over.

We headed with our packed bag towards Bagdogra airport in the same Innova van. Raju was chattering again talking of things here and there. He was on the phone almost all the time while he drove. His talks with us were mostly dramatic; about spotting a leopard one early morning or an exotic bird he saw or about other tourists who sat in his car or just politics. We passed a group of political supporters who seemed to have formed a cluster and were shouting some slogans. They seemed excited about something. Raju chatted with them briefly and laughed out with joy. Didi (older sister) is going to win the elections and we are so happy, he said. He was referring to Mamta Banerjee the soon to be Chief Minister of West Bengal who was considered a strong contender. Four days after we returned from our trip, Mamta Banerjee did pull off a landslide victory for the All India Trinamool Congress in West Bengal by defeating the world's longest-serving democratically elected communist government; the Communist Party of India (CPI) Marxist led Left Front Government, bringing to an end 34 years of Left Front rule in the state. She had always opposed falsely acquired land from farmers and her first step was to return 400 acres of land to the unwilling farmers in Singur. More important in this area where people like Raju and Nandu reside, was the promise she made to resolve the much-waited Gorkhaland issue. She took the first step by forming the Gorkhaland Autonomous Council. The Gorkhaland is a proposed separate state for Nepali/Gorkha ethnic speaking people to have their own autonomous state. We saw glimpses of subtle discussions around this topic on our trip. But their jubilation and celebration reflected hope for their people. I felt once again ignorant and so out of sync about an issue, which is such a big part of my own country, and I am oblivious to this. You spend a few days there and you realize that their demands are real and authentic. I prayed for their dreams to be realized.
Our car navigated the winding road downwards. We were entering flat land passing through army cantonment areas moving towards the airport. Raju was on the phone again but this time we knew who it was. Nandu had called to check on us, whether Raju had dropped us off at the airport. He was like a father who was responsible his group’s safety. We all smiled at his concern and were grateful that we had such a wonderful guide. He was truly in every sense a guide. Besides navigating us through tough terrains he also gave us whiffs of wisdom we will never forget.

Arriving at the airport and doing the security check was tough. We were splitting as a group. We had a long journey back home alone as we were all going our separate ways. Some of us were going home via Delhi, some via Kolkotta, all in different flights. After a quick lunch, Nishrin headed towards her gate. She was the first to leave. We hugged each other warmly, knowing that good friends don’t really part. Then it was Shobha who left followed by me. Jumana and her sister Munira were the last to leave.

Friends are the most precious encounters of your lifetime. They float around your life, appearing before you like sunshine on a dark cloudy day. They may not always be near you but you keep the connection, no Vodafone or Airtel here.
It's a journey really, life that is. Every step in every direction is a moment in which life is lived. Every moment is to be experienced, good or bad. You have to ride every wave, high or low. We may all walk in different directions but there will always be an intersection where you will meet those who you have placed in your heart. I feel like I always carry an enlarged heart. Its filled with so many people I love and those people will always walk with me. I walked towards my gate not sad but satisfied. I looked at the harried travelers around me, rushing towards their gate, looking irritated at long security lines, upset by the overloaded bags and the crying kids. I was floating through all this, cheerful and feeling on the top of the world.
This was neither the most difficult trek, nor the hardest trip but I felt like I was on Everest and in my mind and that is what matters. We are all bodies of imperfection waiting for that one perfect moment. We all come together to experience just that. Whether it is for a cause, for a hobby, for a career or for entertainment. Your soul must be unleashed to experience life in its fullest form. And in the process if you experience failure, don’t forget to celebrate it. Roses left on caskets are not as sweet as when they are given to a person when they are alive. Celebrate the people in your life before they leave you or you them. That’s what really matters.
This is my story of that one perfect moment I spent with 5 women, a guide, 4 porters at 11,000 feet, travelling 88 kms in 6 days. What’s yours?


Anonymous said...

Well written travelogue. Read the pdf posted by gypsyfeet blog with pictures which are missing here. Reading such vivid description takes one amidst the mountains. Keep sharing. Wish you do next one soon!

Sima said...

Thank you and yes my next one is coming...trip to Uzbekistan - road less traveled.Will try and add pictures in this one. Thanks for visiting.