Honest Tales from the Hills – A bond of kindness and truth

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Now that the list of the World’s Most Honest Places is out,  and Mumbai ranked an admirable No. 2 in it, of course a debate has ensued as to whether other places in India can ever share the same glory as Mumbai.

The list makers tell us that the results were arrived at after carrying out the ‘”Wallet Test” to see how often a dropped wallet was returned/ attempted to be returned to its owner. While I am happy for all those ‘lost and found wallets’ and for Mumbai, I do know that I once lost a bunch of very important office papers on the suburban train in Mumbai and never got them back 😦 Wish they were doing these lists then- perhaps my papers would have been treated with more respect. Anyway, that is besides the point, really, and not the reason for writing this piece at all. Its the idea of returning things to their owners – connecting them back, as it were, that touches a chord with me, as I am sure it does with eveyone, including the folks who designed the survey that got us this list.

So today I want to share two stories of honest to goodness kindness of near strangers to me, because of which I too was re-united with things I had lost or left behind by mistake.

In December 2006, just about a year after buying the plot of land where Birdsong & Beyond now stands, we went on a road trip through north Garhwal, touring in a sort of circle around the Birdsong location as its sort of centre. We had another friend and his family with us , and it was a great long trip with lots of lesser explored places to visit. The vehicle we rode was new, the route largely unexplored, the drives long and full of discoveries at every turn. The cold crisp air, the clear sharp winter sun and the morning mists all added to the enjoyment and thrill of the journey.

One of the early stops was the Mandakini Magpie Birding Camp, a timely discovery on the banks of the Madakini river in a one tea shop village named Kakragaad. This is a place just about a couple of hours downstream from the base point of the trek to Kedarnath shrine, and there is a birding camp there run by an expert local birder, Shri Yashpal Negi (Negi Ji to all). I had found references to him on the Delhi Bird pages on the net and was excited and curious to explore what he was doing, as birding was a budding passion I was engaging with, and Negi Ji happened to be located practically in our backyard.

Negi Ji turned out to be an absolute find, and we had the most thrilling explorations with him. He is an excellent birder and guide with an immense range of knowledge and an uncanny knack to spot and identify birds out of thin air or dense foliage as the case may be. He is also very much the storyteller, sharing captivating nuggets on the local natural history, and local heritage. It was all a unique experience , more so perhaps because we had no idea what we were in for.

We had anticipated that the place and arrangements would be simple and minimalistic, and we had overcompensated to an extreme degree- having packed every possible supply into the car ! Sleeping bags, towels, flasks for hot water, food supplies…we were an army on the move. However, things were not so dire on the ground and we did get warm clean quilts and fluffy white towels to use. And while the washrooms were draughty and cold, the food was warm, fresh and somewhat exotic in being rather different to our usual fare. To accomodate more guests in the peak birding times, Negi Ji had put up two tents on the grounds and the younger children in our party decided to make a tent their sleeping place, and use our sleeping bags rather than the beds laid out, to make the experience even more camp like.

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From Negi Ji’s place we went on to Chopta Meadows, and attempted the Tunganath temple climb on New Year’s eve. The shepherds who graze their sheep and goats here on the lush spring and summer grass were all gone, leaving behind their ancient stacked stone shelters  available for interepid trekkers to camp around. There were parties of locals here and there, with their mobile kitchens and rations trailing into the forests and wilderness all through the day, all around Chopta Meadows and in the Kedarnath Wildlife Sanctuary’s surrounding areas.

Anyway, to move on, in a few more days we we were on the return leg of the trip, from Auli to Rishikesh. While counting the luggage in the boot at Auli, it semd to us there was something missing, since the boot just looked so much more spacious than before. A quick review revealed that 3 sleeping bags were missing! A rushed check of the hotel room showed up nothing, and then it hit us that the sleeping bags were last used at Negi ji’s place only. There being no signal on the mobile phones, and the hotel phones being down due to a snow storm in the making, we drove off,  and called Negi Ji from the first PCO we came to and asked about the sleeping bags. Negi Ji said he had been desperate to hear from us… He had found the sleping bags in the tent after he went to ready them for other guests once we left, and had been so worried as he could not get us on the phone. He was thinking of getting hold of someone going down to Delhi and sending the bags with them to our address as a last resort, but it was difficult to find people travelling to Delhi in those parts!

So now that he had spoken to us and knew our plans, he offered a most generous and kind suggestion to get the bags to us. Our route to Rishikesh would bring us to Rudraprayag on the National Highway, from where the road to Kakraagad branched off. He would meet us there and give us our stuff. This meeting point was more than an hour’s journey by local bus from his home, and he offered to do it just so simply for us! His logic for not letting us take the detour and come pick the bags was that it would add hours to our travel time.

Needless to say we were totally floored by this wise, pragmatic and kind gesture of his. In hindsight, I realise how important it is in those areas to stick to tavel time estimates, keep mindful of the weather and to drive within daylight hours as far as possible. By offering to bring the stuff to us, he was not only returning our things to us, but also ensuring our journey stayed safe and as short as necessary.

A lot has changed in those hills since 2007 and I have been travelling there every few months in the last 3 years. I am very familiar and at home in these mountains and know a lot more of the locals. The Birdsong Cottage is now a reality and in in April 3013 we again had a wonderful trip up there with friends, combined with an overnite camp and trek to Deoariyatal lake. Located in the mountains just opposite the Chopta and Tunganath slopes, just off the Kedarnath- Gopeshwar highway that runs through the Kedarnath Musk Dear Sanctuary, this is an alpine lake in the middle of a forest, where the forest gives way to gently sloping alpine meadows that end into a bowl like depression on a mountain top, and in this depression sits the mirror lake. It is a sight that simply takes your breath away, leaving you grappling, a bit dazed, to take in all the beauty and the stillness around you .

There is no settlement here or buildings save two forest officials’ cabins there, and alpine camping tents are the only accomodation for the night. Its an amazingly well managed, clean and well protected site, with stunning snow views, teeming wildlife and birds and flowering trees of every hue. At Deaoriyatal I found myself wanting to be for ever outdoors, connecting with the tremendous presence of the universe every single moment. Even taking a break to eat or drink or go to the wahroom was a tough call to take – its that hard to break away from the spell of nature’s majestic and magical presence there.

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Anyway, we could not linger in this Shangri La forever as we had a time bound plan….so off we were again by mid morning,  trekking back downhill to the base point at Saari, in the glare of a noon day sun of the high altitudes. On the way down from our trek, at the base point, I felt a bit dehydrated and dizzy so took a time out from the group while they had tea at a local dhabha point and then went off settling the children and the luggage in the car. Meanwhile I took a 5 minute shut eye and a long drink of ice cold water, and then went off to wash my face. When I returned the car engine was running and the others were waiting for me to join them. I got in to the car and we started the drive back to Birdsong.

It was afternoon already and we had delayed so much at the lake, mesmerized by its beauty and peace, that we had totally ignored the the day’s timetable. Changing the planned lunch at Birdsong to dinner was no big deal in comparison, just a matter of a phone call back home. So we made our way down hill and reached the Kedarnath highway along the Mandakini river. By now all of us were pretty much starving and looking for a lunch break. The GMVN rest-house on the banks of the river at Syalsaur was our halt for a late late lunch and as soon as I started to step put of the car my head reeled again – this time not with dehydration but with the knowledge that in my confusion at Saari, I had forgotten to pick up my camera bag, and personal bag with my wallet etc…and nor had I asked the others to, and nor had they thought of it!!!

I was in a panic now, thinking of my cash heavy wallet, all my IDs and credit cards, ATM cards, and my precious precious camera gone for ever …or at least in grave danger of being lost to me….when calmer sense prevailed and I called our trek guide Raghubir. He was not at the tea shop where we had stopped but promised to go check immediately and call back. Soon he was back on the phone to us, saying the tea shop owner had noticed the bags and kept them aside safely. Now he was watching over them for us and where were we and was it possible for us to come take them, and when would be reach the place?

We told him our location, about 50 kms downhill of Saari and said we would start immediately, but if there was someone he knew in the village coming down was it  possible to send the stuff with them? When Raghubir realized where we were, he immediately told us not to make the trip to Saari, telling us that he would find a way out and call us back. Within 5 minutes he was back, informing us that he had found a relative’s motorbike and was coming down with a friend to personally hand over our valuables to us! We were just dumbstruck. These guys would ride down 50 kms and then ride back 50 kms to prevent us from doing the same, as it was safer and more practical for them to do it than for us!!!  And within less than an hour, Raghubir was there, at the rest-house, handing over my things to me and being so gracious and sweet and kind….. And on top of that, he refused to let us pay for the fuel , saying it was no big deal, anyone would have done the same and so on. And mind you, these are people who do not really have decent sums of cash to even meet their daily needs, leave alone spare cash to run uncalled for errands of kindness for strangers.

So when I read about the “Wallet Test” and the honest places ranking, my mind goes back to those panicked moments when I realized we had left our stuff behind and then the sense of enormous relief and gratitude toward the men who personally made sure they came and returned our things to us, wherever we were.

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