Solo. Slower. Inward.

I travel slower, I travel inward. When I travel solo.
 
 
Yesterday a journalist messaged me to ask if I would speak to her about my experience as a solo woman traveller, and also share contacts of other woman who travelled solo. She was interested in Gurgaon residents only for the piece. It was fun reliving some of my experiences in talking to her, though I am sure she would have liked some more sensational or sound byte friendly stories than what I could offer. I also realised that so few of the people I know actually go solo when they travel. Women or men.
 
My solo travel experiences have been the mellow and miraculous type, by and large; never very newsworthy in clickbait manner. Also, the whole issue of ‘woman’ and ‘safety’ has not connected in my mind in a big way in this context. Touchwood. Actually I haven’t felt any different or been faced with situations too different on my solo travels than what we go through as a family, when we travel. In fact, overall, solo travel is far easier and simpler, for the sort of person I am.
 
I know some of you are going to say I must be super protected and super privileged or super blind to be able to say something like this. Maybe, Maybe not. All I know is that I have been super lucky to be travelling solo and to have the kind of experiences I have had.
 
Not that I don’t notice how my existence as a solo woman traveler in places where clearly I have no ‘work’, evokes certain questions, concerns and behaviours from others. But they are not my business to be bothered with. At best, I am amused or touched by the concern shown; at worst I put it down to just how the world is, and carry on.
 
Though I travelled solo for work for years, the almost agenda-less personal voyages of my more recent past have been the real deal, by way of a vital rite of passage to being my own person. I believe that travelling solo, to a more or less unfamiliar place, with a very open-ended program, a very rough itinerary and some loose ends, without a work agenda, minus a visiting so and so plan as the central purpose, is a wonderful way to get to know yourself. It can be transformational in the most pleasant, memorable and lasting of ways. I say this for both men and women.
 
When I was young I travelled with an outward focus. It was so much about the place I went to, the people I met, the things I did. Now, while all that is still of course part of the picture, I travel slower, and inward. It helps that being older I am more at ease with the novelties I might encounter. I have less at stake in being a certain way, in presenting a certain front or holding on to an image of who I am.
 
Not surprisingly, the journalist who messaged me was someone I met on a recent solo sojourn in the hills. She had been sent on assignment to the local bureau of her paper. I was breaking a long journey with a stop-over. We met and talked over lunch with the BnB host family, and she took down my name, saying she was interested in a few things that I was doing. Two months later she gets in touch again – she has this story to write and she remembers me, the solo woman traveller she met. She tells me that on that same assignment soon after we met, she too went on her first solo trek. A certain story lead had not worked out, so she had time on her hand, and the trail beckoned. She says a local tea-stall owner told her she was so bahadur to do this. I tell her how a sister-in-law called me Jhansi ki Rani for taking off alone into parts unknown, on my own. We agree there is nothing brave or warlike in this. And yet, we realise, as we talk, that this – you are so bahadur, you are such a Jhansi Ki Rani- is just the sort of thing so many will think is needed, when they think of venturing out as they are.

The October Book Report; Posted Late. Jim Corbett.

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The October 2017 Book Report.

Jim Corbett.

(Forgot to shift it here when I wrote this on Facebook!)

It isn’t really about these books. I had no plan to cover them in a review. More than books to read, they are a part of me, and echo some of what I experience in the wild mountain back of beyond-ness. They are about much more than hunting man-eating predators. They are rich nature and place writing. They are also excellent specimens of narrative and descriptive writing. And they offer a wonderfully detailed cultural history of the hills of Kumaon and Garhwal, of the government and social order prevalent then.
Heidi speaks to my love of mountains but its setting is alien and I am no longer a little girl. Innocent love of place and rootedness are common traits that attract me to Heidi and Ruskin Bond. Bond is a personal idol and a writer after my heart because he creates beautiful prose and eternal meaning out of nearly nothing, located mainly in the hills or other lost places and about lost people, evoking a nostalgia for gentler times and attitudes that are gone or fast fading away.
Bond’s is essentially an urbane sensibility-even when he writes about jungles or ghosts; gentle, mildly sardonic at times and always civilised and soothing. Whereas Jim Corbett is the essential loner of the wilderness, at home on the machan or marching on foot through the wilderness missing not a change in the wind or temperature, and noting his observations in meticulous methodical detail, courageous and unflinchingly honest with himself and others and with a rare capacity for seeing the bigger picture way ahead of his time. For all this, he too is a personal hero and an inspiration.
Today I realised I had reached the end of a month and had forgotten all about my monthly goal of a book report. I looked at my shelves for a book to report on, and saw these books. This is a personal account of my own and some others’ engagement with the matter of wilderness and Jim Corbett.
I first read Corbett as a school girl and was suitably impressed with the adventures and the romance of this invincible hunter. We lived in the fore sts of MP, in a pure Mowgli setting, and tales of wolves carrying off children were part of the legends we grew up with. My mother had lived this life before me in various raliway bunglows in places like Khurda Road, Umaria and Gondia. My father, an army officer had jungle survival as part of his professional training and had served in rather wild places in Assam, and around the Chambal ravines in central India, and had encountered nearly every kind of wildlife. So my childhood experiences in lonely army outposts on edges of jungles and always far removed from the urban sprawl were layered on the subsoil of my parents’ stories.
Encountering a cobra on way to school stopped sending shivers down the spine after one or two occasions. News arrived of tigers and bears being sighted during night patrols and we felt safe and snug inside our pucca homes with locks. Then a snake or a scorpio would be sighted slipping into the house and there’d be an hour or two of commotion to get it out. One day the Tandons found a cobra coiled over their breakfast. That day Tandon Aunty had trouble concentrating on her teaching. She taught us Geography in the tin shed and tents collection of make do structures that served as our school. On a hike through the forest we were told how a bear had attacked a forest guard at the same forest inspection hut we were having our lunch at. We heard of hunters too.
So you see, Jim Corbett, Heidi and Ruskin Bond were what fit into my experience and imagination more easily than the glamorous and out of reach stuff occasional visitors from America, Bangalore or Delhi talked of. I had never owned or even seen shops that sold clothes like what they wore so casually, never imagined talking on topics they approached like experts. Books were practically my only window to the outside world, besides the summer holiday trip to a place of historical or geographical importance.

Just once a movie came to town that made us feel our story was being told. The movie was Bahadur Bacche. Anyone recall the line ‘kitna maza Ballu? Maza hi maza”?
The ideas of conservation has not become common currency, so that aspect of Corbett remained beyond my ken. It came to me in high school via the Nature Club, when I moved to a metropolis. For the first time in my life I was far away from jungles or any kind of rusticity. At first I talked a lot about where I had come from, to my new city bred friends. They found me amusing, and were not impressed or interested at all in my rapturous recall of adventures from the middle of nowhere. Slowly I stopped talking of how much fun life was back in the wilderness. I got busy with all the preoccupations of an urban teen – clothes, fashion, crushes, gossip, music, movies, socialising, studying, clearing exams in school. Then came college, and getting a job.
There was an exciting detour back to the hills and jungles, after University. A hostel mate excitedly showed us an article in Inside Outside about the mountain home of an Uncle, Dr. Lal of Sitla, at the edge of the protected forest outside the IVRI at Mukteshwar. He ran an NGO Chirag in the mountain villages around, and Smitie Misra and I promptly wrote to him to let us intern at CHIRAG.
Killing two birds with one stone we were, mixing work with pleasure all the way. The long walks from our village rental abode to the Post Office in Mukteshwar to encash our travellers cheques are etched in memory. The hoofbeat of the herd of racing deer, the never seen but always felt presence of leopards and the singular sighting of a fox in a field of golden wheat are still fresh without the help of any day to day fb records.
For all my love for the life far from the chaos or the city, I was beset with doubts and the then unlabelled and unsaid FOMO when time came to take up a regular job offer from Chirag. I came back to the rather predictable urban middle class trajectory of a corporate career, marriage, kids, slowly sidelining own career and dreams to family needs and husband’s priorities and so on. But the Chirag experience marked and taught me much for life.
Ages later, I started getting reacquainted with the wild in a more intimate way. Small hikes and overnight camping led to bigger steps. I hiked in the buffer zone of Corbett along trails made or followed by Corbett. I learnt of his hunts and his transition to a conservation advocate. I visited his home in Nainital and at the villages he helped settle around Choti Halwani, near Kaladunghi, and the canal network he initiated for agriculture. He is still fondly recalled as Carpet Saheb by the locals there.
On the Corbett trail from Kaladhungi to Powalgarh, the writing in his books came alive with every step. As it does every time I cross through Haridwar into Rishikesh and start climbing towards my home ahead of Rudraprayag.
I have come here nearly a century after Corbett did, chasing dreams and goals very different from his, with abilities not a patch on his (to me) divine powers. Yet, reading his The ManEater of Rudraprayag is the best testimony to what I witness on my journey here.
I always assumed most people who come to these areas are somewhat familiar with Corbett and his work. Imagine my surprise when a recent group of travellers turned out to have no idea about who Jim Corbett was and why a National Park they visited before arriving here is named so. Another visitor claimed to be a wildlife fanatic, self proclaimed expert on all there was to know about wild animals and the wilderness. On a hike to a nearby temple he insisted on returning from almost near the summit because “leopards are crazy” and the sun would set soon and he knew all about the mad and cruel ways of wild animals from watching youtube. I wish Jim Corbett ‘s bhooth haunts that fellow till he learns the proper way to educate himself about wild things.

 

 

To Stand and Stare

Don’t Listen To Those Who Say Travelling With Kids Is Stressful – Mindful Travelling

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|   Sep 07, 2017
Don't Listen To Those Who Say Travelling With Kids Is Stressful - Mindful Travelling
The Unhotel

Unhotel Guest Blogger Kiran Chaturvedi is a trained sociologist and worked as a market research professional with the WPP Group for many years. She now organizes creative writing workshops and runs a mountain home-stay in Garhwal . She writes on social and cultural topics, places, as well as occasional fiction and poetry. She is a nature enthusiast and is active in initiatives for sustainable, holistic and greener living. In this blog piece, she affirms the need for Mindful Travelling for Kids. 

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Time was, that travel was undertaken mainly as a necessity, fortunate or unfortunate.A lot of family travel for most of us now is a lifestyle choice. Children know the names of distant and once exotic locations as holiday destinations of their last or forthcoming vacation. Fridge magnets, maps and globe models have no charm when all the world is a click or a plane ticket away.

Our children have hundreds of pictures and loads of shopping to prove how thoroughly we ‘did’ a destination. But at the end of all these wanderings, do our kids feel a sense of connection and belonging, of being at home anywhere in the world? Do they feel they have grown as explorers of their interior self and of what is around them? Mindless rushing around, ticking places off a list and clocking miles to keep up with the Joneses is one way of travel. The other way is the path of mindful travel, and staying awake to a sense of wonder.

It starts with us – the parents

Mindful travel for children starts with the parents, of course. We set the example, at every step by how we plan, and how we act. Mindful travel is about fully feeling the journey and the destination, as a series of one complete moment after another. Being fully present to what arises, we drop a load of expectations and agendas. We hold space for experiences to arrive and settle into us, and for us to have the receptivity to absorb what each new moment brings. When we watch snow peaks dazzle before us, we do not rattle off figures of height and distance, but let the awe of the moment settle on us and into us. We let arise what comes as a natural expression of our sense of that encounter, and not rush in to impose given frames of reference. We listen to new stories and refrain from counter arguments and rebuttals and showing off our ‘superior’ knowledge gleaned from other sources. We focus on experience.

Be Present to Connect

We keep the phone out of it as much as we can. We look at each other, and around us, and within us, rather than at the screen and at through the viewfinder all the time. At Hongkong harbour on a New Year’s eve when no one wished each other a happy new year nor exchanged any smiles is when I had my own mindfulness epiphany about travel. I seek connection when I travel, and not of the virtual kind. Else why move out of my couch in my own home and city? We can work out the rules of social media time before we travel, and stick to them. We of course need to lead by example, as always.

Soak up the Local

When we travel mindfully, less is more. No rushing through six countries in six days, please. At least we cut down on the number of things to do each day in each place. Stop by the wayside of something looks interesting. Don’t be fixated on rigid plans. Pay attention to the journey, not being only intent on arriving at a point in the shortest time possible. It can lead to some interesting results.We stopped by to watch jaggery making at a sugarcane farm once,and my children decided they would  never again eat gud ( jaggery), seeing how many bees fell into the boiling sugarcane juice ☺ and then when the sugar factory stink hit their noses later, they changed their mind deciding that anything which smelt so bad being made had to be worse than bee contaminated gud. We also discovered the church of Lady Sumro, and got to eat fresh tart ambis from mango orchards.  Keep extra time in hand. Do not run a tight ship with every minute dictated by the clock.

Involve the kids

Involve the children in the planning. If we are going to Paris, and have two days in hand, give one day fully to their choice and cover it slowly. If it is Disneyland, can we do lesser number of rides and maybe repeat a favorite ride and fully enjoy that rather than rush through ten rides with a FOMO dread lying heavy over the day? Years later, what our children will remember is the quality of the experience and not the number of rides they had. If your daughter wants to pose with Disney cartoon characters, can we let her linger with her favorite for as long as she can, rather than rushing her to pose with all the cartoons she can spot? Ask the kids how the ride makes them feel, and why they pick some as their favorites. Let it be their own story rather than the one sold to the world in brochures and films. Take the rides the kid want, even if they are not the most popular or your own favorites. Let them talk freely without interruption about what they felt. Be mindful towards them. I recall standing in the humongous line to get up to Eiffel Tower right after landing in Paris, and losing my temper over my son’s constant ‘are we there yet’. Did we really need to rush to do the most iconic (and most underwhelming) feature? Certainly not! We could have also just as well lounged on the wonderful grounds at the base of the monument and watched the crowds and had a picnic.

Ideate and choose destinations with the kids

We can start picking places off the tourist grid to travel, at least for some holidays. Ask the children about the kind of experiences they dream of, not about destinations or specific places. Then start to ideate on where to go, what to see, basis what they wish to experience. Keep it open ended and free wheeling, with the flexibility to change. Every place has stories to give us, memories to imprint. We just have to have an open heart. Go for agenda less walk in the neighborhood of your vacation stay. Talk to the locals. Get invited to a local home and listen rather than ask all the questions. Let impromptu plans develop. Accept meal invitations from strangers. Be the source of the curiosity rather than casting a surveyor’s eye on all.

Get more, go slow

Travel also can turn more mindful when we go slow. See if you can break the journey. Can you drive rather than fly to places, and walk instead of taking the car once at your destination? Once arrived at a place, can you linger? Can you make time to stand and stare? Once, we had camped overnight at Devariyatal Lake after trekking up to it in the afternoon. The next morning we were to move to the meadows at Chopta and attempt climbing up to Tunganath. The morning had broken clearer than pure crystal. The peaks of Chaukhamba and Gangotri Glacier were vanilla scoops waiting for us to dig into them. Some of us were eager to reach Chopta and catch the views from the higher altitude there. Some others refused to budge. The previous evening had been cloudy and cold, and this sun soaked morning was a thing of utter bliss. It would be a shame to walk away. On the other hand, we would not be able to claim we ‘covered’ the trek to Tunganath we had all set our eyes on. Finally we all stayed back. The moment was here and now. Rushing off to catch the same view from another location or to count one more climb on a list would only make us lose what we already had and give us a very short window of time with the new location. We caught every change of light over the snow, and every changing shade of water in the mirror lake. We had an impromptu yoga session, and an extended round of breakfast and tea. Endless stories were shared at one and only dhaba wala in the vicinity. We caught shepherds going up the meadow and local women gathering grass. We lazed around and rolled down the grassy slopes. We dropped our agenda and stayed mindfully aligned to what was present, instead of chasing a list. We slowed down and soaked up so much more.

Watch that breath

Then there are the micro practices of mindfulness that are such a boon to help us and the children find a calm centre during travel. Have you noticed how clenched and tight our bodies are, at any given time? On your holiday, let go the habit of holding our breath. Sit on a bench and focus on your breath. Slowly watch the air flow in from the nostrils and then leave after replenishing our bodies. Children love this sense of connection to their bodies. Cultivate the practice of mindful immersion in experiences. Encourage children to pay attention to the local flavors. How about picking produce at the local markets? Let children touch, smell, feel the fruits and vegetables and local produce. Let them try cooking a local recipe. Let them get familiar with the aroma, and develop their own understanding of the local flora and fauna. Encourage a mindful practice when you are away from the rush of your daily routine, and it will travel back home with you.

Engage, Involve and Immerse with the kids

Children will pick up the art of mindful observation and mindful immersion when they see you practice it. Encourage your children to see, hear, think, with complete immersion. This is the natural way a child engages with the world, but our discipline and structured school education eats away at this childlike ability to connect with the moment. Help your children find themselves again, away from the influence of school syllabus and rigid daily routine. This means not engaging in judgements, labelling or sorting and ordering their experience. Do not be eager to feed them with the facts about a place at one go, or to constantly evaluate what is being seen and ‘learnt’. Rather, let them engage with where they are and what is going on, and their curiosity will bring up questions. Allow them to explore the answers. What they learn and conclude will surprise you. A thirteen year old I know came up with the idea of breast milk banks in hospitals watching farm animals feeding calves that were not their own. She asked a few questions to the local farmhands and arrived at her own solution for human babies lacking access to mother’s breast milk. A young boy watched miles of farms in arid Madhya Pradesh being tended to by aerial application of crop protection. Months later, that sight inspired him to come up with a model of a quick landing-short runway air taxi service for urban areas. When the clamor of learnt ways of looking at the world can be silenced, a path opens up for fresh creative perspective to emerge. For something new to rise up, the mind needs to be a blank slate. We can provide the time and slow pace for children to do this, by putting aside our own preconceived ways of looking at things.

At its heart, mindful travel is about how you see rather than how much. It asks you to slow down. To absorb. To create connection rather than consume pre-packaged experience. Childhood is a great time to get introduced to the practice of mindfulness, and travel is a great opportunity for its practice.

*All pictures are personal pictures of Kira

 

 

The Cradle of the High Peaks

Yesterday I had an epiphany about man’s eternal pull to the mountains. It was triggered, fittingly, by the words of a Bhutanese landscape planner on Youtube. He reinforced something already felt in the deep dormant layers of my own knowing, never quite fully understood and owned, unsaid by me so far.

The man from Bhutan talked about how he can never fully physically feel at home anywhere else the way he does in his mountain kingdom. That the body makes its home as a part of the physical landscape and sometimes so does our soul. And how mountains, to his mind, did this precisely because of what seems their distancing features.

While they are no doubt difficult to get to, and beset with a lot of natural extreme conditions and access problems, it is these very qualities of impregnability that lend a sense of a charmed, protected and even secure sense of self to those who live in the cradle of the high peaks. I was pulled back to just such a discovery I and a friend had shared, years ago, to our own surprise. We were on a long road journey in the relatively remote and wild Central Himalayas, driving down to the plains through high, rugged peaks on roads that on one side hugged steep slopes going up and on the other side ended in deep and sharp drops into a raging river below. Tough as the terrain was, we found ourselves in a sort of flow after a while, and the winding road and the constant turns of the wheels became nearly as normal and natural to us as our breathing. We were one with the land, with the road and with the journey, and it was a happy time.

Then after a whole day’s drive, the road  stopped curving quite so much and  started stretching out straight in front of us. The cliffs and drops on our sides gave way to small mounds  and rocks and then endless vistas of flat green and brown and man made blocks placed together.  Almost at the same time, my friend and I looked at each other and wondered aloud, that though the driving was now easy, what was this odd sense of loss, a sense of being adrift that we were experiencing?

What we felt missing was the physical embrace, the cradling, the scaffolding of the ever-present looming massive bulk of earth, the rock solid presence of those peaks, and not just the beauty, not just the grandeur and snowy brilliance or the verdant bounty of the mountains.

Listening to the Youtube recording, I heard the landscape design expert say that for him and his country folks, the terrain of their mountain kingdom was their biggest source of sustenance and SECURITY! And he further went on to say that those mountains were indeed the protectors of the people in a very real physical sense in olden times, and today the culture still sees them as such. Well, I say !! This was just so like what I had felt – that the mountains were somehow holding us safe, enclosed, enfolded, with all their curves and highs and recesses and valleys, and when we reached the plains we were left wide open and on our own – so distant from the large, benign, overarching physically powerful entities that are the mountains.

I wonder if any of you have also felt this way, or feel a connection with what I am saying. The mountains, to me seem to be about arriving, settling in, and falling into rhythm.  They are about being rooted, about being one with something solid and unconquered and perhaps never fully conquerable. They are also about a certain surrender, a certain acceptance. They are saying, like little else can, that this is it, this is here, this is now.

So tell me, do you feel that any place, any physical landscape that pulls us, pulls us for a similar reason, or is the pull of every kind of landscape feature a random matter of simple sensual or sensorial appeal?  What would those of you say who love heading out to the sea rather than the mountains? For me, the sea is all about another kind of a trance, about losing sense of time and boundaries. It is about being literally, adrift. The mountains are all about being rooted. Present. Is it the same for some of you, and how is it different for others? Do keep the thoughts flowing…..

The power of comfort food. And why we crave it.

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Whole whaeat pancake with fresh fruits and yoghurt. Rishikesh.

Comfort food. A very sought after experience, aptly called so as it gives us much succour  when we are out of our comfort zone, be it with the changing seasons, our low key health, the crisis points of daily life or bigger, epoch making tumults of the times, or just the long winding road of a holiday.

Any food can be comfort food, if it evokes the emotions of wellbeing, familiarity and cosiness. I am told comfort food is food we grew up with. food that mom made. I disagree. Comfort food may be all that, but it is also much more, for me. It is all food that can bring me comfort. A sense of ‘ all is Well’. Of being safe, of being tended to with gentleness, of being in a warm embryonic comfort zone.

As I felt with a plate of sizzling, fresh off the oil french fries made during a mini cloudburst, in the warm and dry comfort of our mountain home when we were forced to be homebound by the forces of nature. The taste of those fries took us out  to wherever we wished to be, while the roads remained blocked for days, and our plans of a trek and a chopper ride into the higher reaches of the mountains remained elusive. Then again, comfort food for me need not be food at all, it can be a drink too. Like the ice cold lemonade made with fresh spring water which is sold at Teen Dhara, the mandatory halt for refreshment on the long drive uphill on the NH 48 from Haridwar to Badrinath, which we also pass en route to Birdsong & Beyond. The tangy seasoning of that drink takes away the dull tiredness that by that point in the long and heavily winding road journey begins to seep into the muscles. And comfort food can sometimes be totally alien too, something you have never known or tasted and yet, when you have it for the first time, it feels like having come home. Like the time I had the typical Bengali dish of fish curry with Panch Phoron tempering. Nothing in my Punjabi upbringing had prepared me for those flavors. I had never tasted Rui macch before. And yet it was love at first whiff and a life long commitment at first bite. A dish of fish curry made that way will make up for almost anything for me, anytime.

Journeys, being a step outside our set routine life, are perfect settings for comfort foods. Travel takes us out of the familiar, and off the beaten track travel takes us more and more into the unknown. Connecting with comfort food is one way of establishing touch with the familiar, the enfolding cosiness of being loved and cared for, which can sometimes be missed by travellers crossing the frontiers of the known, while seeking the unexplored.

Keeping in Step with the Ride

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Today a friend said to me that she is convinced her life is a journey, because more and more she notices that it feels like this – that she is on a train where she has many people coming in and sitting next to her, and then moving on. The recent awareness she has also picked up about this coming and going, she said, is that she is now totally accepting of, and at ease with the changes. The new connections made, the old ones lost, some broken in pain, some forged deeper with love. She knows that whoever comes to her comes with a reason, and that particular interaction is meant to be, would lead to something. And therefore she is now more happily open to anything and everything coming her way. To letting go, to letting be, to being.

Isn’t that such an apt story for what our lives too, in essence are really like?

So also is travel. And not just the wanderlust type, the great-journey-of-my-life type of travel. But even just mundane, deliberate, conscious planned travel. The journeys we are sent on by the office. Or the sudden trip made to handle a family emergency. Or the fun family holiday trip gone wrong due to weather or airline mess up. Any and all travel. We may have a start date and place, and an itinerary,  a schedule of stops and destinations, and a return date. Or we may leave it all open and free flowing. But then the journey and the road take over, and the more we are willing and open to this flow of the journey, the more fun we have on our travels. We don’t always know who we will meet, what we will encounter, whether we will see what we set out to see, and sometimes, even where or when we will reach.

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And if we start to be rigid and inflexible, fixated and unbending on the move, we will miss out on so much, and end up uncomfortable, on edge, fearful, anxious and miserable, and thoroughly dislike the journey and the sights and encounters en-route and never be happy with the destination, which will not seem worth it after all.

I say this from my own experience as well as that  of friends, and I feel the fun of a journey, as that of living a fulfilled, happy life comes from unshackling one’s heart and mind, the giving up of the need to be in control, to judge, to classify and categorize. It comes from a willingness to be, free and unbound in your heart, in your soul, in your essence.

Then the external, temporal ups and downs are just that, highs and dips of the road, a part of the journey, no more, no less.Passing features of the terrain, to be watched, and watched out for, to be dealt with, to be overcome, to be left behind…not the things that hold the ebb and flow of my life in their hands. My ride then is much more than the destination, or the halts on the way, or even their sum.

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The Tale of the Keys I Forgot!

My head reeled and my stomach cramped as I sunk into a huge sense of frustration and helplessness. I could not believe this had happened! OMG… We were on our Holi-Easter break, driving uphill with some friends to our home in the hills, and had just come to a midway halt on the journey. As the car engine switched off, my husband casually remarked, “You have got the keys to the cottage, of course?”…And the realization hit me that I had Not ! I had not even thought of the keys during the preparations for the journey, leave alone bringing them with me .

So what were we to do? Apart from feeling like an utter fool who had goofed up big time, I just couldn’t think what was to be done. Did I rush back to Gurgaon (220 kms away) right then to get the keys, or did I call someone from there to rush out to us with the keys? Or did we take our chances and carry on and hope to find a way to get the lock opened or broken? In those early days, I did not have a regular caretaker on site and no one local at the cottage’s  location – totally off the tourist map, remote and rural-  had the keys to the cottage. Like I said, my head reeled …

Luckily for me, the others didn’t seem to think that any major problem had occurred. They were more amused than worried, and kept telling me  to chill, and that this was all no big deal and we would find a way. Back in the city I would have acted and felt exactly like them. But not when we were heading to a tiny village, off the main road networks, in the interiors of a reserved forest range in deep Himalaya. And that too during a festival when it is considered just fine to be drunk stiff and off from work for a few days at a stretch.

I  worried that the tiny remote Himalayan village where the cottage is located would have no key makers/ locksmiths to help us. The markets would be shut and locksmiths would be off work. I worried that we would have to break the lock open with brute force, damaging the brand new construction. I worried about the travel time we would take next day to get to Birdsong and that there would be no place for us to find shelter if we didn’t get the house open before nightfall. But with everyone around me making light of the situation,  after a bit even I started  feeling that a simple way would be found out of the situation. I even started smiling shakily when others joked about the adventure we would have camping out under the stars at night if nothing worked to open the door before nightfall.

Next morning we started on our ride to the cottage from the camp, some 160 kms away, in high spirits, intending to look out for a locksmith on the way in the little towns we would be crossing, and to ask him to come along with us to our destination. At about 100 kms along the NH 58 we were at the junction town of Rudraprayag, a nondescript place made infamous nearly a century ago by its man eating leopard and his nemesis, Jim Corbett. All we found noteworthy here was the turbulent confluence of the Mandakini and the Alaknanda as they rush down from their source glaciers to meet more sister rivers, to ultimately form the Ganga.

This was our last main town on the route, after which we would drive 50 or so kms through thick forests and high mountains and mind-blowing views of endless ranges, snow peaks and deepest, widest valleys but not even the smallest of towns. So this had to be our best chance for a key maker, and we hoped to find one and take him home with us.

So we started asking at the market place, and the first few shopkeepers said there was no one like that in town. The little mountain town was was still somnolent after Holi. When we saw some police constables we thought ourselves lucky- they would surely know of a locksmith! So we asked them, and yes, they did know of one!!  “Yes, there is a Sardarji (Sikh) chabiwala (key maker) and he roams the market on his bicycle. But I haven’t seen him around today. He generally also sits under that huge Pipal tree “.

We went up and down on that market lane, turning our car with great difficulty on that narrow one-way road, with permission of the policeman, and while many other shopkeepers confirmed the existence of said Sardarji, there seemed to be no sign of him that day. Then one shopkeeper mentioned that he actually was an itinerant, and had a room booked for him at a local lodge, where he stayed when he was in town. So off we went to look for the lodge, and traced this elusive man’s phone number from the lodge guest register. We rang up the number, and the man picked up our call, confirming that yes, he was the key maker, Gurmeet Singh and while he could certainly help us had he been around, he was right now home away in Dehradun a 100 kms away, and not coming back for another couple of days. When he did return to his work in Rudraprayag, he would call us to check if we still needed his services. And meanwhile, he helpfully suggested, if it was just a simple door, could we not try just forcing the locks with the help of a few basic tools? The villagers did it all the time, didn’t we know that?

I was now even more than ever worried. What would we do? My heart could not accept breaking the lock of  the newly made dream home. And what would we do after breaking the lock? Spend the night in a remote forest area without a decent bolt to keep the door in place? When we have all sorts of wild animals prowling around and their night calls audible to our ears? I would mange it, having spent nights in a tent in the same area, but what of my very urban, city slicker guests?

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In desperation, I called a neighbor in the village, and explained my predicament to him. He sounded nonchalant and said he would take care of things. We reached the cottage and all seemed quiet. No caretaker, no neighbor. No sign that anyone had tried doing anything to get the door opened. Our guests ooh-ed and aah-ed about how pretty everything was. And then they wanted to use the wash room. And there was no way to get in. I held the handle of the door helplessly and moved the lever down, expecting resistance. Instead, the handle moved down and the door swung in and opened. We all gasped in surprise, and with perfect timing, while we were still confused, our caretaker and neighbor walked in. It seems on hearing of the problem, my neighbor had called the caretaker and between them, they had fabricated a makeshift key. Somehow they had managed to open the lock without damaging the door. And then had gone off to have a cup of tea. And that is how we found an open and undamaged home. The door even shut properly and could be bolted for the night.

They know too well the importance of a safe door that shuts properly at night in these parts. For reasons quite different from those we lock ourselves into our homes, back in the city, even in broad daylight.

My guests of course only felt more sure that I was a worrier. That I had made a fuss when there was no issue at all. They held fast to their stand even when that same night they actually heard the leopard. I wonder if they would have felt differently when the main door was swinging open in the night wind and the leopard was heard growling in the forest cluster on the hillside across the cottage? But I am so glad we didn’t have to find out.