Thursday, May 30, 2013

Chro: Jan 1, 2009

I laughed, I drank, and I smoked,
And embraced everyone who cared to walk with me,
Save the ones that were slithery.
I felt at home even with the rats that ran around,
Rats gave me the pain they had squirreled away for good,
In return for the food that i (in lower case, italics) served on the ground.
But then I had turned another page, for another story,
To blame me.

I did good, and those, in God's sweet time (i.e., the time that the almighty has left after updating his/her FB status and heeding to my friend/help requests) came in handy
All that I did bad, even in good intent, they haunt me
just till the hour of the reading of this line, no more
Such is the nature of the world, and its mediocrity

Whether it's a rant or not,
On average, I have to blame me.
As I turn another page.

Boom! The sound of the church bells that drove the doves away were but fleeting
Like my footprints embedded by the waves on the sand while I kept walking
The doves they returned when the bells stood still
Those feet of mine, they never did, they were on to a hill
Nor did the waves, they had turned another tide,
Till they drowned all alongside, in a deluge
While I turned another page, for another story.

Like the time (and then, there was this time, when I) I did not sleep for a few days,
But, when I did -one goddamn day in 365.x- for an hour, or as luck would have it, 3,600 seconds,
I had a dream that felt like eternity,
And when I woke up, I felt good,
In my dream, I fell, and I hit rock bottom, the nadir,
there was elastic, from the bubble gums I never chewed.
And I bounced back, to turn another page, and live another day,
For a brand new story. And this one's for glory.
I call it Version 2.0, watch out, or be sorry!

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Let's March!!! Part 4 - Rishikesh Rafting

Earlier parts: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3
21st March, 2013
A long night's sleep in a cozy room always helps, especially after 5 days of trekking. There was nothing much to do today, except to sit in a bus and reach Rishikesh (Byaasi, to be precise), the starting point of our rafting escapade. After the breakfast in an Uttarkashi restaurant (the owner of the outlet acted as though his wife had beaten him up or something, in the morning) and a customary replenishment, we boarded the chartered rickety  bus.

Ale retailing is kind of a shady business in Uttarakhand. Thanks to the Char Dham pilgrimage circuit, most retail stores selling booze are hidden away from the sights of the normal passenger. This one was bang on the main road. Shops like this are like prison cellars, and you feel like you are committing a crime, while you buy stuff. The same can be said about non-vegetarian eateries too.

I said there was nothing much to do today - in the intro paragraph - but not for some people. She found a way to dislodge the bus driver.

We reached Rishikesh by around 5 in the evening and checked into Camp River Wilds, with its pristine sandy beaches. I was a bit disappointed in the beginning, because we had company - a bunch of 50 high school kids, out on their team building retreat. The disappointment stemmed from the fact that I had visualized the camping experience to be similar to the one we had two years ago - the beach all to ourselves. You cannot be too greedy, can you?

Show me the meaning of idling! When was the last time you felt like you had nothing to do?

The camp site panorama, with the emerald waters of the Ganges. 
The rafting rounds were set for the next two days. That night, we just relaxed over a sparkling campfire, with the softly flowing river and the stars giving a nice accompaniment to the music and the crackle of fire wood.

The lanterns outside each of the tents made it look all magical! 

22nd March, 2013
Today, we were to do the 14 kilometer stretch between Kaudiyala and Shiv Puri. Partho (one of the veterans of river rafting in India) gave us a briefing on the do's and dont's, before we started off. Some of us were worried, as his briefing dwelt heavily on the "calculated risks" associated with rafting. I found it annoying, but I'm sure his mind was preoccupied with the casualties on The Wall, the previous week.

Here's some of us.

Just FYI, there are unofficial "chicken lines" and "tiger lines" in rafting. After gauging the team's ability, the guide would select the line to take. The names indicate the difficulty of the route the guides take while negotiating a rapid. We took the tiger one. :)
And the rest of us.
Our guide kept us entertained throughout with his chants and rafting war cries (which we had to repeat). One of them went chiri miri chiri miri dhoom dhadaka ...hoo haa ...hoo haa. It made no sense, but it was fun yelling it out at the top of our voices. May be, we will make it the feedback chant of our quality assurance team back in the office. :) Here's his pic, and please don't ask me what his hand gesture means.

There are several amazing Level 3+ rapids on this stretch, each with their own fancy names. Some of them are the Three Blind Mice (3 rapids in quick succession when you cannot make out where one ends and where the next begins), the Golfcourse (one of the deadliest, but much less stronger now than it was years ago), and the Roller Coaster (the name says it all). There's one rapid called Mala's Curves, where the river kind of takes a turn. That's cheekily named after the Mala village on one side of the river.

Reuben fell into the Three Blind Mice, or at least that's what he claims. I strongly suspect that he jumped in for the sheer thrill of it. To prove my case, here's people picking him up from the Varna river two days ago, where he had accidentally fallen in while having lunch. Eyewitnesses claim that he was seen scheming about coming up with an excuse to jump into the cold river.
There are placid stretches where you can jump in. The water is freezing, but once you get used to it, you wouldn't want to get back into the raft. Some of us never needed any nudging to jump in.

If you ever do this stretch, please do not sit inside the raft during a part called body surfing. It's simple, you jump into the water holding on to the rope on the side of the raft IN a rapid. It's a harmless rapid, but the fun is just too much with the river water beating against your face and your body going in all directions.

The toughest part of the rafting is not the rapids, but this. Carrying the whole stuff up. It's heavy, and slippery. (no we did not take the school kids with us, in case you're wondering)
Pre-lunch snacks are available at the end of the session. Yummy churmuri. Trust me, you might want to carry something on your own if you're the picky types, because you would be dead hungry after the long stretch in the water. 

We took jeeps back to the camp. After a yummy meal, we relaxed for a bit, just a bit, because the wind picked up, blowing the sand all over the place. It wasn't too bad for us, but my friend (the MadM/Kumbh Mela guy) who had gone rafting in May this year, recommends avoiding that month. He said, he got caught in a literal sandstorm.

Things settled down a bit in a while, and we went on to play volley ball. It was a mistake as the high school kids came in and asked for a match. Never to shy away from a challenge, we offered them one. We lost the first round, but it was a closely contested one. So much so that it created a schism in the school ranks - they were supposed to go trekking in the evening - but after an hour long discussion, they convinced their teachers that playing volley ball with us was more important. We won the second round, but lost the third, but it all ended happily, especially for a bunch of folks who rarely move their fingers away from the keyboard.

The camp is the best place for a siesta.

23rd March, 2013
On the second day, we drove a little further downstream to start our rafting. The waters from the Tehri dam were released as we reached - and we could literally see the water levels rise a few meters, engulfing parts of the beach, while we waited for stuff to happen.

And today, I was determined to capture some of the Level 3 Rapids on cam. The last time I was here, I had to be satisfied with shooting Level 1s, and had to tuck the camera away when it came to the bigger rapids. There was just a small issue - we needed a cameraman (or woman) who wouldn't have to raft. As luck would have it, we had a person extra in our raft that day. We made that person our camerawoman. That happened to be Anuradha, the most risk averse person in the planet, sitting bang in the middle of the raft with nothing to hold on to. Well, she needn't have worried, because that was the safest position as there were people protecting her from a fall on all sides. And I had only bargained for a camerawoman, but I got a commentator thrown in, for free! Here's a preview of what she shot, and this is as good Rishikesh rafting can get, minus The Wall.

This is the lady I'm talking about, throwing caution to the water, with a little bit of help from her colleague. 

There's a small sandy stretch toward the end of the rafting. It is frequented by foreigners who throng Rishikesh - semi-nude sort of beach. People call it mini-Goa. Look out for it, only if you're interested in finding gawking domestic tourists more than foreigners.

Coolers aka masala lime soda! Call it lemonade, if you like.
We had lunch in an open-air facility nearby. The place is infested by monkeys, but we did not care. We were so hungry and would have fought them over lunch if it came down to it.
We said goodbye to our rafting gear. It was a pain to watch them go. Another day, another time - so long. I was impressed with the number of rafts this year though.

We checked into a basic hotel in Rishikesh after that. Went shopping, but did not purchase much (I can only speak for myself.). Having fun with gerunds:

Simple world! Everything that matters (ahem, ahem), for 2 Rupees.
We celebrated Satya's birthday at the German bakery in Rishikesh, near the Laxman Jhula. A good inexpensive place to hang out, if you're ever around. Watch out for the fake German Bakeries though - the original one started by a homesick German is situated right at the entrance of the Laxman Jhula suspension bridge (read the interesting story of its history here). We had a good time at the outlet, and at the end, one of the hotel guys came up and said, "aap logon ki dosti dekh ke, bahut acha lag raha hai." (Feels good, watching your camaraderie.)

Picture of the Laxman Jhula (Jhula = bridge) from the bakery.

At the fag end of the trip, while trying to get some sleep in the hotel in Rishikesh, I realized I had no worries. Everything had worked out well - and despite my best apprehensions, everyone was fine and everyone had a good time, and I was in good shape too. But, then it wasn't over for me, and I had this feeling that came up like puke. That there's never gonna be another trip like this, or better than this. Coz, having fun like this should be illegal. I feel the same way about it now when I write this.

The interesting part was what happened next. We reached Delhi the next evening, and flew back to work! Yay!
Earlier parts: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Let's March!!! - A Trek to Dodi Tal - Part 3

The previous part could be found here.
18th March, 2013
We were getting ready in the morning, when Nisha (a team member who had held up strong till that point, despite the snow scares the previous evening) broke the news to us. She did not want to come with us to Dodi Tal that day. She wanted to sit around and wait for us at the Manjhi camp. And I was like, "excuse me, but why?" Her response was classic "Because my mom would not approve of it if she were here!" And I was like "WHAT? This is your excuse - that your mom would not approve, if she was here?" and walked off. Now, that's crappy conversation to have, especially when you have an upset tummy yourself. A few others tried to talk her risk aversion down and to convince her to come along.

Everything else was fine. We took out some bright-red gaiters (borrowed from NIM) to cover our shoes and lower legs from snow, and wore them right away, the wrong way. Thankfully, the guides spotted our mistake, and then we wore them again, this time, the right way.

We had a nutritious breakfast (which I skipped, thanks to HAD). In case you're wondering what HAD is, it stands for High Altitude Diarrhea. It is an acrimonious acronym I coined while writing this blog. My personal contribution to mountain sicknesses like HAPE (High Altitude Pulmonary Edema) or HACE (High Altitude Cerebral Edema). HAPE and HACE can be deadly, but trust me, HAD can be truly excruciating!

We filled our bottles with orange juice, checked our gear, and waited till the support team was ready. In the meanwhile, Nisha had finally come around. She would later lighten up the mood of our guides and support staff during the trek with her constant banter of "bhaiya, mere do chotte chotte bache hai, zara madad kijiye" (brother, I have two small kids back home, help me please). At times, she would have 2 people to look out for her. That kind of help was needed, as time would tell.

We started at 9.30 in the morning. For anyone who is wondering about the difficulty of Day 3 of the trek, this is the easiest. Manjhi pretty much is a hundred metres or so vertical below Dodi Tal, and about 5 kilo meters away horizontal. Mapped out on a trekking scale, that translates into few climbs - a breeze, especially after two days of good trekking, except when you tread the rickety path in winter. And we were right there at the fag end of the Himalayan winter. Our plan for the day was to reach Dodi Tal and return to the campsite by evening.

Very soon, we hit the first snow patch, and that would set the tone for the bulk of the day. Here's some of our team members with Ranveer, Kishan's brother. While Kishan is more of a trekking guide, Ranveer focuses on hard core mountaineering. He has quite a good number of 6,000 and 7,000 metre peaks to his credit. He was standing in for Kishan this time around. In June/July this year, he will be climbing Mt. Kamet, a  7,700 m+ monstrosity, which is the second tallest peak in the whole of Garwhal Himalayas.

It was white all the way, barring a few short stretches.

It wasn't all hunky dory like in the pictures. A few of us tripped and fell, or got stuck in snow at regular intervals. Thankfully, the entire support crew was there walking with us today (cooks, porters, as well as the guides), since we would return the same day to the Manjhi camp without camping at Dodi Tal.

I remember coming around a bend saying "Oh My God", looking at the beautiful vista presented in front of me. Naomi, who was close behind, was anxious when she heard my words. She quickly walked up around the bend, saw what I meant, and chided me - "next time you see something good, please say wow, not, Oh My God!".
 There was little elevation gain, but the panorama was stunning.

Single file.

People kept slipping and ended up sitting on the ground with audible thuds and sheepish faces. And one of us did fall. Thankfully it wasn't a sheer cliff on one side, but a 45 degree slope. I watched in horror as Anupama started sliding off. She was shrieking away and we could see a tree which was going to stop her, given the trajectory she was taking. It was like a slow motion movie, with one of the characters going faster than the others. Thankfully that faster character was not Anupama, but Ranveer, our guide, who ran over the snow faster than she could slide down, and who was there in front of her to arrest her cheap thrill before she got to the tree.  

Then the time came for us to do some organized sliding. This was to avoid a tricky patch involving a small rivulet. It was fun, with some of us tumbling away without stopping (like in the pic below). 
This sport is not for people with HAD. The look on my face says it all.

Just for comparison, check out some other pictures. Liji. Possibly one of the few people to do a Himalayan slide on her birthday!
 Nisha. Chotte chotte bachen (Li'l kids) and all those sob stories took a backseat, when it came to fun.
 Satya, as usual.
 Saurav - navigating the slide.

The trek became harder after this point. Some of the patches were risky to negotiate. In some places the snow was not quite packed well. In others, the walk on the edge of the path itself was scary. What really raised the adrenaline was the steep drop on one side of the trekking path.


Happy to be at the midway point -the Bhairavnath temple. The trek was more or less straightforward from here (fyi - slushy snow minus cliffs, had become straightforward for us by then). I think Dodi Tal is around 2 kilo metres from here.
An interesting thing about this trek was the fact that we took few breaks. We stopped frequently, but those were micro breaks, not the type where you sit around and waste time, and tire your body further. It was no mean feat with 15 people, and all of us would almost always be at a shouting distance from each other. Approaching Dodi Tal. We reached by around 12.30.
At the structure marking the entrance of sorts.
Dodi Tal is an average at every level except its beauty. It's not a big lake, nor is it a very small one. The trek is not long by Himalayan standards, nor is it short. And, when we reached the lake, it was not completely frozen (like Sonia Gandhi, for instance), nor was it completely thawed. 

There are trouts in this lake, and fishing permits are available. But, those permits allow you to just play catch-and-release. Since pure sadism is not our core competency, we decided against that form of fishing. Another face of Dodi Tal.

We identified a good sport - packing snow into a ball, and throwing it into snow. By the time it rolls off, it adds layers of snow on top and finally becomes a snow wheel of sorts. I know it doesn't sound that great now, as I write it, but it was good fun nonetheless - it was one of those you-had-to-be-there kind of sport. 
Shooting breeze. 

Slabs of snow rested on top of structures around the lake.

Birth of a river! This is the point where the river Assi Ganga starts flowing.

And quietly flows the nascent river!
We walked around the lake and idled, while our support crew prepared lunch. I skipped it as usual, not just because it was a bit oily.

The Eco lodge at Dodi Tal. It was closed, but I (and a few others) have profound memories of this facility and its surroundings, especially its derriere.
Attitude shot, with the company flag.

Evidence of Yeti, the abominable snowman.

 Beam me up, Scottie.
This picture was taken in front of the Ganesh Temple at Dodi Tal. Like everything else in the vicinity, this was also closed. This is believed to be the birth place of the Lord Ganesh.

We started our trek back by 2.30 in the afternoon. As expected, coming back was riskier, with the hot sun loosening the snow cover. Thanks to our support people, and oodles of caution, we made it happily in the end. There were 1 or two instances of almost-fell-down-a-cliff kind of scares, but things were fine.


Fine, until the risky sections got over. On plain trekking ground, when the guides let their guard down, Nisha tripped over and fell on a rock, and has a permanent V-shaped scar embedded on her face today. Inglorious episode then, but it makes a good story for her now: "Oh that scar? That one happened while I was trekking in the Himalayas".

We walked fast and reached by around 5 in the evening. It was a tough journey for me and another fellow trekker who had had HAD, and the consequent and consistent testing of bowel power throughout. But she took it in her stride and proudly remarked "I have left my mark on all these mountains!" Tell you what, this is the new hit!

The toilet tent, a pilgrimage spot of sorts.

There was an evening party to mark the success of the trek (reasons for partying are very important for us. The previous night, it was Liji's bithday; and tonight it was a toast to all the 15 who made it). This video is from the previous evening, the new found happy birthday song that goes Hathile paadyo poo poo. What does that mean? It means, "you have to ask a Nepali for what it means." I'm not gonna write it down here.

That night at Manjhi felt much better than all the previous nights. What remained of the trek was just two days of idle walk down. It was sad in a way that we were past the crescendo, but then, hey, you cannot complain about everything.

19th March 2013
We started out the next day by around 10, after clearing out plastic and other debris for which we were responsible.
Parting shots of the Dayara range on our way back.

The infamous 15.

Good bye, snow line. :(

We reached Bebra Gate by around 2 in the afternoon. True to plan, we decided to camp there. There was no point in pushing forward, with two of our team members experiencing some problems walking down. With nothing else to do, we just had a bon fire (yawn) and a party (yawns again). The camp fire this time around was pretty good, with our support crew bringing in a lot of firewood. They were thankful that we took care of the camp fires on both evenings in Manjhi, and they wanted to compensate by putting up some serious fireworks.

20th March 2013
Today was a short walk back to Sangamchatti, which we made without any ado. The start was inauspicious though, with Rachana, our star trekker so far, falling off into the ice-cold rivulet while crossing the log bridge.

Our man here offered to climb a tree to fetch us rhododendrons to eat.

Some wild life on the way. Thank fully we encountered no bears (not that they hang out in the open).

Edges of the wishing tree. You can hammer coins on to this tree and make a wish, and if the local belief is to be believed, the wish will come true (surprise)!
If my wish is to come true, it is bound to have a serious positive impact on these hills among a lot of other things. I think I asked too much of a small tree.
While walking into Aghora village, we met these school kids.

We walked into the school, and met the care takers of the institution.  It was examination time and they were busy, but we still managed to have a nice chat. If I remember correctly, this is a primary school.

6 or 7 year old kids taking their exams. I saw one trying to wriggle her way through a match-the-following exercise.

Preparing food for the kids. We were offered lunch, and it smelt nice, but we politely declined, as we were eager to get back into cell phone coverage area.

If you ever visit Aghora village, look out for bhenji ki bheinz. This one terrorized us even on the way back - a true form of wildlife. I saw people jumping on to roof tops to escape its wrath. This is the notorious bhainz with the affable bhenji.

Last of the parting shots.
 When O when, is the next time, I wondered. I still do.

 Reaching Sangamchatti. We made it back in record time - by around 1 in the afternoon.

Waiting for lunch to be served by the banks of the Varna river. The Varna and the Assi Ganga rivers meet at Sangamchatti, and flow forward as the Assi Ganga.
In all of this, there is a story that remains to be told. Anupama had picked up a pair of Lytos from Bangalore, and this was the state of it, at the end of the trek. The deterioration had started on the way to Manjhi, and it was complete now. We did some damage control with glue in Manjhi, with the song "Fevicol se" motivating the shoe repair crew. We plan to do some compensation talk with the shop folks next week. Watch this space for updates, if you're interested.

Trust these guys to make your trip in these parts. Pradeep Panwar, the guy in green (on the right), was the main guide for us. From awesome food to great support and service, Kishan, Pradeep, Ranveer, and the rest of the gang made it a great experience for all of us. When was the last time some one called out from outside your tent, "Sir, tea?" And when that happens for five days on the trot at six O clock in the morning, without fail, you have to fall in love!

And then we went back to our mundane Hotel existence in Uttarkashi after an hour's jeep drive through rugged  terrain, not before we got some inputs about the trek:

Back in Hotel Shiv Linga in Uttarkashi, we idled for some time, and some of us left for Uttarkashi township for shopping and bites.  Tell you what, nothing beats a bath after 5 days out in the open. Some of us, including me, overdid it, with two of those clean ups, including one in the river in front of the hotel.

While sipping tea and smoking away, I received a call from Sanjay Saini, our rafting coordinator in Rishikesh. A bit of context here might help, our trip this year was divided into two parts - trekking and rafting. Rafting in Rishikesh is an amazing experience, with camping in sandy beaches, umbrella drinks, volley ball, whirly rapids and all that. Two years ago, we did raft the main stretch in Rishikesh with a multitude of class 3 rapids, but one disappointment remained. We could not raft The Wall. The Wall is a Level 4+ rapid, a real tough cookie so to speak. That time, our rafting guides had told us conclusively after the first day of rafting, that most of us were not good enough to take on The Wall, with her deadly eddies and whirlpools, and with a 90%+ risk of toppling. We ate their words then, but then we came back prepared this year, with a few people who would not give up.

The news that Sanjay had to offer was terrible. The Wall rapid stretch was closed the previous weak, after two back to back casualties. Two foreigners had died in the rapid on consecutive days, and after a public interest litigation in the court, the stretch was closed. We could have blamed it on a few things, like the unscrupulous operators with little safety apparatus for a rapid like the Wall. Or even more, the increased water levels in the Ganges, after the Tehri dam waters were being released on a daily basis. Sanjay was confident that we could do the main stretch (Kaudiyala to Shivpuri) with all its fun, without any hassles. I hung up the call, and tried hard to put on my normal face.

I hated it. This was the second time that The Wall was sidestepping  us. And this was the second time in a few days that different forms of the same element - water - would prove to be the dampener. And in the same hotel. On the day before the trek, the warnings from Kishan about excessive snow beyond Manjhi, and now, warnings from Sanjay about excessive dam waters! I just hoped these things would be mere coincidences.

Part 4 here.