Saturday, 27 August 2016

Roopkund - about trust, trash and toilet tents

Scan. Squat. Squirt. This is the standard modus operandi to pee on a long trek.

It's easier if you are a man because:
a) you needn't squat and
b) your scan span goes further, so you can guard your privacy easily and efficiently.

We, the women folk, have to rely on others to be our scanners. It's all about trust. You trust that your scanners will ward off wanderers and keep your dignity in tact. 

So when we reached Patar Nachauni and spotted big boulders, our bursting bladders ordered us to find spots to squirt. This was also the last spot for any phone reception. While some of us clambered down to squat, others climbed up to the highest point and called home to inform loved ones that we were alive and well and that they won't hear from us for the next 24-30 hours or so, as there would be no phone reception after this point.

From this point onwards, sharp incline and rocky terrain tested the trekkers' strength and will. While some in the group suffered from symptoms of altitude sickness (breathlessness, dizziness etc.) others managed by pacing their stride.


When the going gets tough, trust yourself.

I did.

Thick fog descended and all I could see was the next bit to climb. In a way, the fog helped. I was forced to focus on just the patch I could see in front of me. It made the climb easier.

Sometimes, it's best to take the next step and not worry about the bigger picture.
Climb. Stop. Breathe.

Climb. Stop. Breathe.

The rhythm lulled me into oblivion. I was alone but didn't feel lonely. It felt like I was back on my yoga mat -- in sync with myself, my breath, my body and my soul.
And every now and then, I'd stop to:

The fog engulfed the terrain. It gobbled up the trekkers behind me. For the duration of this laborious climb, I trekked alone.

Was it wise?

In hindsight: NO!

Trekking as a group requires trust. We trust our guides to keep us safe. But, we also trust each other to keep pace.

I was lost in myself for this stretch of the trek. It's okay to do that when one is on a solo trek, but not when you are part of a group.

'Anything could've happened.' I was told. 'You could've twisted your ankle.'

Sense was knocked into me when the rest of the group caught up with me,

I could see the folly of my ways.

Not once during that 4 km stretch did I think of anything or anyone-- not even my son who was trekking with me. When I try to recall that time, it feels as pure as silence. There was magic and I think I felt it and was enchanted by it.

If I were single and if I had no worldly ties, I'd go on solo treks all the time. In fact, I met one such man one morning at a tea stall in Bedni.

He's 55 and single. He lives and works in Kolkata. He picks a trek that calls to him from trekking magazines he subscribes to. 

'You must be reaching Nirvana.' I remarked when he told me his story.

'Far from it.' he said. 'I still like money. Still need to earn it to be able to afford treks. But only when I come here, I feel truly alive.'

Trekking is as much about such chance encounters as it is about traipsing through tricky terrains and synchronising  the self with sunrises and sunsets.
Kalu Vinayak temple marked the end of the steep ascent. 
It's all downhill from here till we reached Bhagwabasa.
According to a guide I overheard, people take a vow to do the parikrama with the statue of Ganesh (looks pretty heavy to me) for their safe return from Roopkund.
I waited here for the rest of my team to catch up.

Lessons learnt today will come in handy the next day when  at 2 am we will set out on the most treacherous climb I've ever attempted.

But before we go there, let me show you our camp site at Bhagwabasa.
Do you see the slate like rocks? Yes, they were sharp and uncomfortable. We didn't pitch a tent. Instead, we were given a shed to squeeze our cocooned bodies close together for warmth. It was cold and extremely uncomfortable.

Basically, once you found a spot where the rocks poked you the least through your sleeping back and through the mat below it, you lay still -- like a mummy.

The good news was that we had to be up around 2 am to get ready for the climb.

'We will be preparing porridge and you all will eat some before we head out.' announced Chauhan, our guide as we settled to sleep. ' You will all need the energy.'

We all groaned collectively. Who in their right mind was going to eat porridge at 2 am?

But we all did. And relished it. And asked for more. It was the most delicious sweet porridge (sans milk, but stuffed full of energy boosting almonds, cashews and raisins), I've ever tasted in my life. Yum!

Clad in all the warm layers we were carrying, we stood ready on the grey stones.  An early start ensures safety, we were told. Melting snow makes climbing dangerous.

Torches -- Check

Last loo run ---Check... hold on a tick! Who's been using our toilet tent?
Yes, those are our toilet tents: the beautiful red one and the one next to it.  As Bhagwabasa is the last and only campsite before Roopkund, it gets busy. As trekkers, we trust that other groups would use their toilet tents (even if they are pitched a bit further). We also trust that trekking companies who bring large groups (almost 30 in one) to the Himalayas would ensure that their 'groupies' observe certain civil etiquette to make the experience pleasant for all.

Sadly, that's not the case.

Toilet tent misuse may be overlooked when the terrain is tough and the cold is biting, but there is no excuse whatsoever for littering the place. The sad and bitter truth that one faces on such remote and beautiful parts of the country is that trekkers and visitors lack basic civic sense. It's a shame.

Come on people, wake up! Take your trash with you. It's not rocket science. Leave only your footprints behind-- the Himalayas don't need your plastic sweet wrappers, discarded cans and bottles-- take them home with you and then recycle them. Or better still, don't bring plastic with you.

Can we trust ourselves to keep the Himalayas safe and clean and litter free for the generations who will come after us? 

A clean India is not impossible to achieve.

This kind of behaviour gets my goat. TV and radio ads can blast out 'Swachch Bharat' or 'Clean India' slogans till the cows come home, but India will be clean only if the people who live there take care of their trash like it's their responsibility and not just the government's.

Back to the trek, then.

It was dark. It was damp. But, at least the rain had stopped. Had it been raining, we wouldn't have carried on.

Chauhan's instructions were very clear-- keep pace with each other and keep hydrated.

The first light...

We stopped to put crampons and gaiters on just as the sun was streaking the sky red.
We could see what lay ahead. It was stunning. It was scary; so scary that I tucked my camera away to keep my hands free.

Jagat (the best guide in the world, according to my son) who is also a minefield of information about peaks and everything else used his ice-pick to claw out a foot hold, the person behind him would put his foot in and then the next, and so on. The progress was slow but steady.

When I reached the top, I took my camera out.

 We DID it!!!
photo courtesy: Rajat:)
Almost as soon as this picture was clicked, the sinking feeling that we had to climb down sunk in. NO!!!!
Temple at Roopkund Lake.
Climbing down may be easy on the lungs but my poor heart was petrified of falling off the mountainside!

Splitting headaches (thanks to altitude adjustment) greeted us back in Baghwabasa when we reached at around 10 am. Strong cups of tea and a little rest sorted us out. The day had only just begun and we had to make our way back to Bedni.

Come along and watch the sun light up the Himalayas; the abode of snow ('him' means snow and 'alaya' means abode).

The same temple (Kalu Vinayak) on our way back, when the sun shone in the bright blue sky.

I met a local family who were carrying these flowers as an offering for the temple at Roopkund. They were climbing up the path like you and I stroll in a mall-- totally chilled!

these flowers have an amazing scent and they paint the mountainside purple.

Halfway down, it started pouring buckets. My IKEA poncho didn't hold out. I squelched my sodden body back to camp.

But look what happened almost as soon as we reached Bedni -- the sun smiled and shone through the blanket of clouds.

 Our beloved toilet tents.
If I tell you that we saw yellow daisies next to the hole in the ground the next morning, will you believe me?
Well, it's true:)

A clear morning the next day-- Bliss!
All we had to do was walk downhill for about 12 hours through a thick forest of Juniper, Pine, Oak and Rhododendron to reach the point where a vehicle would pick us up. 
That should be easy, right?
The rain soaked forest floor of Wan forest will make the climb downhill slippery and slushy.
We will play many rounds of 'antakshari' to keep an 'ear' out for each other.
The thought of a hot bath at the end of the climb down will keep us all motivated and chirpy.
I'll demonstrate the zig-zagging technique of climbing downhill to Arnav. He'll ignore my suggestion but adopt the same technique when Rajat will show him after a few slips.
I'll shake my head at his teenager ways and carry on enjoying every moment of this precious 
mother-son trek.

If, like me, you are fascinated by myths and legends, then check this link out: 

Hope to see you all soon. Enjoy your weekend 
Better still,
RECYCLE, if you can.

In case you missed part 1 of this trek, here it is:

Thursday, 25 August 2016

K is for Krishna

Re-posting this one to celebrate Krishna's birthday today.
Happy Janmashthami!
Butter thief or makhan chor was how Krishna was introduced to me. I was little. Stories were my classroom. My mother and grandmother were the storytellers.

Who's Krishna?

Our God. Or rather, my mother's favourite God. My mother's family (her parents) called Krishna their Ishta Devata or their favourite deity.

It may sound strange to you -- this business of favourite deity and choosing a God to worship. In fact, I've been asked this question many times by friends, acquaintances, colleagues and students- Why do Hindus have so many Gods?

When my eleven year old students in London asked me this question during a RE (Religious Education) lesson, I read up and researched a bit to find out a way to explain to them. I used an explanation I found online to make my point one rainy afternoon in October of 2005.

'Do you wear the same clothes to go swimming as you do when it's snowing outside?'

No, Mrs Jain. (in unison)

When you look at your holiday photos, or birthday photos or school photos, do you notice you look different in different clothes?

Yes, Mrs Jain.  (in unison)

Do you become a  different person every time you change an outfit?

No, Mrs Jain.  (in unison)

Here's Kelly's photo when she went to Spain last summer, and this one was last week at her nana's 90th and today Kelly is in school uniform. Is that 3 Kellies, then?

The shuffling shoes and loss of eye contact meant I had less than 7 seconds to wrap up and make my point, and I did.

Our different Gods may look different, they may have different qualities, but they are all representing the One God. Just like you look different in different clothes but you are still the same person. As a Hindu, I can choose which God I like and make him/ her my companion and friend and guide. Isn't that the point of Faith? To find a way to make the best versions of ourselves with a little help from a friend?

Looking back, I sound like such a boring teacher! Poor poppets.

I digress.

As children, we would listen to our grandmother tell us tales of Krishna stealing butter and getting caught, lying to his mother and getting punished for it, being naughty and teasing his friends. He seemed so accessible.

His antics change as he grows into a young man. In his youth, he is a model lover. His girl friends (gopiyan) adore him. He adores Radha and teases her all the time. He plays the flute and herds cows. And you thought that Bollywood heroes are a modern invention?
This image was sent to me by my friend Mimi who took a photo of a wall mural in a restaurant. 
I love it.

Murali Manohar or flute charmer is another name by which we call him.

He will kill demons and destroy corrupt Kings. He will recite the Bhagwad Gita. His words and their meaning will be sung and recited in Hindu homes all over India and abroad by aging grandparents. Sometimes, these words will enter the souls of the young and take root. Most times, they'll become another hymn to be recited as a ritual, without any thought given to their meaning or relevance.

Krishna has been many things to me in my lifetime.

Lying on a charpoy in our veranda under the twinkling shadow of sapta rishi (Ursa Major), my mother's chiffon dupatta (scarf) would flutter over my eyes in the evening breeze. I remember covering my eyes with it, while listening to her Krishna stories, imagining him stealing all that butter, some smeared on his mouth while he protested his innocence. Only the yellow light of the lamp was visible from our veranda. Rainbows appeared around the yellow light when I saw it through the dupatta. Playing hide and seek with the rainbows, I'd beg my mother to tell us another Krishna story, the one about his evil uncle, or the one when he stole all his friends' clothes when they went  swimming, or the one when he showed the entire universe to his mother...or....or...the requests were many, the time was limited.

I met Mark, an ISKCON devotee in Budapest yesterday. He told me about organic farming and I said I'd like to volunteer once my son goes to university. This chance meeting with Mark gave me my K. I was pondering over Kabir, Kolkata, Kareri while flying back to Doha, when Krishna presented himself. I was saved.

It's impossible to write about Krishna in a single post and that too when I'm typing with eyes half shut --I'm shattered. It's late and I've had a long day.

I'll leave you with a quote from Bhagvad Gita. It's easy to understand but very difficult to imbibe. I try and fail almost every day. But, I try gain. It's the reward bit I get stuck on. I'm working on it.

You have the right to work, but never to the fruit of work. You should never engage in action for the sake of reward, nor should you long for inaction. 

For more information about ISKCON:

Monday, 15 August 2016

Roopkund -- of moss, meadows and motherhood

Wash your hands!
Have you washed your hands?
Did you wash your hands?
I hope your hands are clean.
When was the last time you washed your hands?

Summer 2016 started a day before my son's school term ended. He and I flew to Delhi to start our first ever mother-son trek along with my usual group of 'adult' friends in the Himalayas. We were Roopkund bound and I was in my element -- my nagging element.

Nagging my sixteen year old son to maintain hand hygiene became my prime occupation as soon as we set foot inside the night bus which would take us to Haldwani. I had visions of Delhi belly forcing us to abandon our trek and head home. I HAD to pester. I'm sure mothers of teenage sons understand.

'Give him space. Let him be.' was the advice I didn't want to hear, but I got it all the same, from a fellow trekker who was new to the group. Her words stopped me in my tracks. I had never seen myself as a 'helicopter' parent. Secretly, I pride myself as the kind of mother who doesn't hover over her children, one who gives them space, one who has a life of her own; i.e. a cool mum. Obviously, I'm not. If a stranger can offer this advice after two days of trekking with us, then I must be a version of Debra Barone (Ray's mom from Everybody loves Raymond) without realizing it.

It was a wake up call and time for me to introspect.

Himalayas helped.

I wish I had carried my copy of Parent's Tao Te Ching with me. I hadn't. The beautiful and breathtaking (literally- as there were times on this tricky trek that I thought I may be taking my last breath-- more of that in another post) beauty of the Himalayas calmed me down. The mountains have this magical power to bring out the best in me. It's only when I get back down to reality that regular reminders penned down by wise men like William Martin are needed. He says:
"You cannot force your will
upon other human beings.
You can not hurry children
along the road to maturity.
And the only step necessary
on their long journey of life,
is the next small one. "

Don't get me wrong; I loved his company and so did the others in the group.

"We must make it mandatory to have one sixteen year old on all of our future treks!" declared a dear friend one evening by the campfire, where we were drying our sodden boots like cobs of corn--turning them every once in a while to ensure they were dry enough for the next day.

A few tips for those of you who are planning to go trekking with your brood in the future:

1. If your offspring doesn't fill your water bottle, or run to fetch sun cream when you ask him, but does all these jobs willingly, quickly and with a smile for all the other adults in the group, pat your back and say to yourself:
'Well done! You raised a helpful kid."
They will take you for granted; even in the Himalayas.

2. Be prepared to be made fun of; of your technically challenged brain and your TV serial choices in front of strangers for this is how teenagers bond with other adults. Just pray that there are a few others like you in the group who will come to your rescue as some of my friends did for me.

3. If you are sharing your tent with your teenager-- BE WARNED-- it will turn into a bomb site every time  they need to change, even if it's just the wet socks. Trust me!

4. Any safety advice should come from the guides or other adults. They listen, period.

5. Enjoy the times when they bring you a hot cup of tea without being asked or insist on carrying your bag at the end of the trek when you know they are as shattered as you are. They will soon become adults and go on treks of their own. Time we have with our children is finite.

6. Relish the pride you see in their eyes when you get rid of spiders or mosquitoes that have entered the tent.


7. Carry a pack of cards.

Before I get all emotional about how great trekking the Himalayas was with him, let me dig the photos out and take you to my home state in India, Uttrakhand--all the way to the lap of Trishul massif-- to the glacial lake called Roopkund with me. Are you ready?

An almost ten hours' ride from Kathgodam (last train station and close to Haldwani) led us to our first camping site: Lohajung.

One of the first things we spotted when we started our trek the next morning were these locals sorting 'moss'. They were sifting through the moss that grows on oak trees in the area, separating twigs and other dried wood. Apparently, this stuff sells for a decent amount of money. I had no idea.

Lush bamboo and gurgling brooks kept us company.

Stunning creature, don't you think?
 And this my dear readers is monkey corn. Only monkeys eat the kernels that grow around the black stalk. We spotted many more as we climbed higher.

The first day's trek was a stroll in the park compared to what was in store for us later!
We reached Didna village, stopped for chai and carried on to the spot our guide had picked for us to camp for the night. 

It was a little piece of heaven. 
Birdsong chirruped all around us.
 The next day took our breath away- literally!
The climb was intense, but the promise of walking through India's most beautiful meadow (bugyal)kept me going and of course, the suggestion made by Chauhan, our guide, that there would be a chai stall in that meadow made it easier to cope. 

 The moss collectors:
'My photo?' he looked surprised, but struck this beautiful grin for me anyway.
He also told me about the many uses of this moss. It's used to prepare medicines, shampoo and even paint!
 'What will you do for the rest of the day?' I asked her.
'I'm getting old now, so by the time I reach back home, it will be late afternoon. I'll eat and rest.'

'May I take a photo?' I asked. 'I may never come back here.'
'Of course, you will!' She declared.
'This is the land of the Goddess, you will be back.'
I like her confidence.

 The moss eventually destroys the oak.
I guess, this is how nature balances it all out.

Aaah...! Ali Bugyal

'My photos have gone to Germany.' came the happy reply when I asked for his permission to click.

 Water is always on the boil in this pateela. He then uses boiling water to make chai on the gas stove. We devoured egg bhurji with chai at his stall.
He operates this stall for 3 months -- for the trekkers! So glad he does.
We were cold.
The wind was harsh-- bitterly cold and strong-- pushing us back. The climb after this lunch break wasn't too pleasant.

 But, just look at the view ...
Bedni Bugyal: our camp ground for day 3.
 I was too restless to sit when we reached. The sky was blue. My camera and I decided to explore...

Just a short walk from the camp and the temples above was this temple-- encircled by a stone wall. Legend has it that this lake (which fills up with rain water and is now marked by the stone wall) was carved out by the local goddess.
Here's a more detailed explanation:
"Bedni too comes packaged with a legend as informed by our guides. ‘Bed’ (pronounced baid) is a unit of hand measure/hand span. The reigning goddess is said to have carved out the lake using her hand span (‘bed’) after doing a parikrama  (inspection) of the area and choosing the spot for the water body. Hence the name ‘Bedni’ (carved by the hand of a goddess)."

Insomnia becomes my companion when I'm trekking. Lucky for me, most sunrises happen early in the morning too:)
And how can one sleep when this is what you see when you peek out of your tent?
That night in Bedni, sounds of bells kept waking me up. I wasn't sure why the donkeys (who I had seen with bells) were so active at night.
It was this pack of Bhutia dogs, not the donkeys.
These three came up to the top of the hill and petted each other for a good thirty minutes, stretched...yes, downward dog, no less...and climbed down the hill to start their sheepdog duties for the day.

 We started our day. 
 Himalayan Iris
 and stunning views.
 Look! A dolphin!

 The point where it got tough...
 really tough...
We are headed to Bagwabasa: den (waas) of tigers (bagh).
It's the last campsite. 
We will be starting our trek to Roopkund at half past two in the morning the following day!
Yes. In the dark-
with torches lit!
Listening to our guide, more than seeing him--
after getting our oxygen levels checked for fitness the previous night.
We will thank our stars that we started the trek in total darkness when the sun will shine the next morning at 5,029 metres OR 16,499 ft!
Because, we (most of us, at least) know in our hearts that had we seen what we had to climb to reach Roopkund, we would've chickened out.

Hope to see you soon with the last leg of this trek and a few shots of the beautiful Roopkund.
It's been a busy summer and blogging has suffered.

Meanwhile, here's an account of the trek by Vani, a fellow trekker who became a friend:)
She tells the stories and retells some of the legends here: