It’s a hot summer night in Delhi. Crowds are milling about. You get into your bus towards the mountains, it’s supposed to leave at 10PM. It’s midnight now. The bus finally leaves. It’s 6 AM in the morning and you are exhausted from the heat and the acute mental stress from the preceding days. At 7AM you are supposed to be in Dehradun. You find out you are abandoned in Haridwar.
It’s a hot summer morning at Haridwar. It’s 8AM now and the crowds are milling about. The government run public transportation is a nightmare and utterly inadequate. The bus station is packed, thousands of people are sweating and sighing in the morning heat that would soon aggravate to rival the misery of seventh circle of hell!
You walk around to find cash, ATMs are empty. You try to find a shared taxi. There’s no sight of shared taxis to Uttarkashi or even Dehradun. It’s Yatra season and all are engaged as private hires. You are dizzy from not having dinner the previous night and the heat, the oppressive heat. You buy a red bull and gulp it down. You are already scammed of Rs. 300 by an auto and a rickshaw fellow, but you only feel sorry for the poor old men struggling to make ends meet.
You return to the bus station and sit down carrying over 20kilos on your person, jostling for space. After a decade of pottering around the country, you wonder, is travel in India really worth the colossal incompetence and apathy? But you have an assignment. You need to plod on.
A bus arrives at long last, hordes of people throw themselves at the bus. It's packed in seconds, even before you stand on your feet. Do you really want to fight for it? There is little dignity in scrambling for your space when the government abandons you like this. You let go of the idea to use public transportation, and book a private taxi to Uttarkashi. But before you exit Haridwar, you are now stuck in a two-hour traffic jam. You are the traffic jam, you sigh! It is Yatra season you see. The heat is oppressive even in the mountains. You reach your destination at long last. The village looks like this. Is travel in India still worth all the trouble? You’ll find out soon!
Welcome to Uttarakhand! Let the adventures begin.
The night you arrive, the heavens rumble and lightning strikes repeatedly somewhere over the mountains, dazzling the stormy purple night skies. You have now settled into your comfortable wooden cottage on the mountain slope and have collapsed. You dream of mountain rains, to assuage your heat induced trauma but you wake up to crisp views of Shrikant, Draupadi ka Danda and other white Himalayan peaks glistening under the bright morning sun. You are too exhausted to go out and take in the view. The friendly manager knocks on your door later, asking you to come for breakfast. You are too exhausted to go out and eat the breakfast.
You say you need to sleep some more. The friendly manager’s assistant now knocks on the door, saying lunch is ready. It isn’t noon yet. You are puzzled. The assistant says he has to go somewhere. The friendly manager’s little niece has died, while playing with her little sister on the roof. You feel like you’ve been hit by a bus.
You came to the mountains to escape your version of reality. But in the mountains, every emotion exacerbates. Life’s fragility and absurdity hits you like a ton a bricks. You are all alone in the meadow, the entire staff has gone down for the funeral. You are left with a little girl to take care of you. So you grab the little girl and go down to the village to find strength in something far more enduring than human life - a lone 500-year old wooden house that has survived amidst a sea of concrete.
By the time you return, the assistant has returned and he brings additional help to run the place. A big group is arriving, so they are busy cooking up a feast. The guests aren’t satisfied, victims of their own expectation. They leave angry and disappointed. The assistant and the additional help are left high and dry. The moon is shining and the resolute mountains are glistening. As you hit the bed later that night, you realise something.
For us humans, life never relents.
You have arrived in the mountains but the magic hasn’t washed over you yet. You reluctantly move your tired self from the comforts of the cottage towards a meadow high up in the hills. Starting at 6500 feet, walking seems laborious. But when you travel long enough, you know that travel inevitably imitates life, it alternates between sunshine and storm. Today the storm must lift.
Soon a pair of woodpecker catches your attention. It is furiously butting its head into the wood. A Himalayan whistling thrush is melodiously singing from the shadows. A great barbet is calling too, not so melodiously but steadily. The grand old Oak forest feels like a cathedral where you forget your sorrows and your faith gets restored. Through the gap in the canopy, you see the white peaks fill the horizon. Nature is the ultimate mindfulness master. You forget all about life’s fragility and complexity. There’s now a spring in your step.
You’ve glided past the trail in excitement but are now hovering at 10000 feet. Oxygen makes its lack of presence felt. The spring in your step is gone. You now both breathe and walk laboriously. But the meadows have appeared. You are now at 11500 feet. It is by far the largest meadow you’ve ever seen. Green rolling meadows stretch in every direction. Cows are grazing and they are annoyed by you. On the far slope fringed by a row of purple rhododendrons, a herd of sheep look like specks in the green carpet. Shepherd dogs are running alongside their masters. The evening couldn’t possibly get any better.
You’re wrong. There are wildflowers. Everywhere! They come in many shades and in great variety. You are now elated. Nature is wonderful. Life is wonderful. This glorious home planet of yours is wonderful.
Yesterday you felt life was relentless. But today life seems euphoric.
You’re delirious on your way back from the meadow. The golden glow of the setting sun is reflecting in the spark in your eyes. Nature excites you, it fills you with immeasurable awe and joy. Not even the disappointment of mountains hiding behind a curtain of haze can bring down your spirits. For a June day at 3500meters in the Himalayas, the weather is quite warm. But not even the looming threat of global warming can put a dent in your bubble. Not today. Nature wins with its remarkable beauty.
You walk down with your guide towards the edge of the meadow where a cluster of stone-walled, slate-roofed shepherd huts are weather-worn and crumbling. Only four of the two dozen huts still have people in them. One of those is your guide’s parent’s hut. The very pleasant husband wife pair live alone high up in the hills for few months every summer to graze a herd of 500-odd sheep.
You see a jolly old couple living the rustic life in the hills? No. If you take off the rose-tinted glasses, you see a resilient couple gracefully weathering the harsh life of a shepherd, staying put in the crumbling, fast abandoned. The government is hell bent on “protecting” the land by banishing its natural stewards & original caretakers. But they persist, for as long as they can. "It’s a difficult life," your guide, their young son says, several times. They simply smile.
You eat rice along with “pahaadi” leaves collected in the meadows for dinner. It’s delicious. The four of you squeeze into a 4 sq ft space for the night. You also share the cramped hut with four cows and two calves, all pooping and mooing. Dogs outside bark all night long. The stench of cow urine and dung hangs in the air. Sleep eludes you. It’s 4AM now. The husband and wife are already up, tending to the livestock and homestead. They are 76 and 65 years old.
Day before yesterday you thought life was relentless. Just yesterday you thought life is euphoric.
Now you finally learn life is a lottery!
You are tired from the night’s sleeplessness as the morning dawns. The cows are out of the hut and the dogs have disappeared too. There is some peace now and yet you can neither sleep nor wake up. You suspect the haze has cleared and the Himalayan range hiding from you yesterday is visible now. You step out to see an ochre red sky behind the jagged pinnacles of snowcapped mountains. The sun is peeking from right behind the peaks. There are wildflowers here too. You face north and watch the faint orange light reflect on the massive snowfields of 6,316 m high Bandarpooch. It is a divine morning.
You soon head down to the village. Further travel plans don’t seem to materialise. You hire a taxi to Uttarkashi. The driver seems okay but another taxi doesn’t let him pass and he flies into a rage. He chases, abuses the driver and goes around threatening him. He turns to you later and he’s nice to you. You are scared!
No sign of shared taxis at Uttarkashi to Rishikesh. You ask him if he can arrange for a private hire. He’s being extremely patient while trying to get you a taxi. You wonder why is he being nice to you? He arranges a taxi at dirt cheap price. You are surprised. You are now on your way to Rishikesh. The vehicle breaks down soon after and you are stuck on the road waiting for help, frustrated. After hours, you move and now you take a detour to drive along a beautiful but secluded road next to Ganga river. Things are looking up.
It’s late in the night and you are now stuck in a huge traffic jam. Your phone is dead. You reach Rishikesh at long last and collapse on your nice bed in the plush room. Just this morning, you remember, you woke up with cows at 3500m high in a shepherd hut. The next day you get a phone call about that plan that didn’t work out and things fall into place! You head straight back into the mountains.
Life is a lottery alright. But it is also a rollercoaster. One giant, unending rollercoaster!