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Thursday, June 26, 2014

How I met Nadine in the Cu Chi Tunnels

Top post on, the community of Indian Bloggers

It was my last day in Ho Chi Minh City. I was at a bus stop, talking to two Australian girls, Terry and Lane, whom I had just met. We were all going for the Cu Chi War Tunnels tour. A third girl stood a little behind, looking away. 

The tour bus was close to full when I got in. I wanted to sit next to Terry, but as luck would have it, there were no seats left in the back. I sat alone in the front, opposite to the driver.

I looked back from time to time. There was non stop chatter and I wanted to be part of it. I felt fidgety. There was only one person sitting quietly amid all the chatter in the bus. She stared out of the window as if to find some meaning there. The third girl.

It intrigued me.

After an hour, the bus stopped at a factory. Victims of the American war worked there. Sufferers from the Agent Orange gassing, most of them had either skin diseases or deformities or blindness. Tourists were brought to the facility under the hope that they would buy some of these artefacts.

We walked through the small corridors, looking at the paintings. Some stopped and spoke to the workers. When they said they did not know English, smiles and eyes spoke the best language known to mankind. The girl still kept walking alone.

I knew I had to speak to her. 

After about twenty minutes, I walked out to the garage where our bus stood.  The girl stood there, lost in her thoughts. 

Right. Classy opening line, come to my head now.
Every time I try that, God sends me the lamest ones.

But she looked up, and we started speaking.
Where are you from”, she asked me then.

It is the most common line that initiates conversation between two travellers. I had asked and been asked that question a hundred times already on this trip. I had developed my own answer, though.

Where do you think I am from”, I said widening my eyes in mock exaggeration. Her eyes twinkled for the first time right about then. She studied my face, and looked at the bandana, the stubble, and the boots.


When I told her I was from India, she insisted that it was going to be her first guess. I politely asked her to take a hike.

Her hair and eyes were brown. Her skin was tanned and not pale. Where could she be from. Every guess I made turned out to be wrong.

I am half German, half Tunisian. My name’s Nadine”
“Nero.” We shook hands.

Most of the people had now come out. As we boarded the bus, I asked her with all the casualness I could muster, if she would want to sit with me in the front. She agreed.

We chattered a lot. Nadine, to me then, seemed like a person on her guard. She had been travelling for some time, but she really had not started to trust her environment. And it showed in everything she did. She had wanted, when she left Germany, to travel as a backpacker through Asia. All her friends and family thought she was mad in doing so. It made her feel all the more adventurous, all the more rebellious, and she craved for the liberation of it all. She left for the airport one day, happy knowing that she was going on to take on the world, and life, on her own terms.

I saw so much of an Indian kid in her.

But Nadine was not going to find it as easy as she had thought. The most valuable thing one can learn about solo travelling is to let go. To surrender to the environment. To let a moment come to you, and not try to search for it.

It  is an enviable quality, to be absolutely free in your heart and soul, of worry, of time.

So though Nadine had gone to Thailand and Cambodia and had now entered Vietnam, she could not shake of some of her worries while travelling. She was still living in a hotel, and paying 25 dollars for a room every day. She still held on to her purse and belongings tightly, worried that somebody might steal them. And when she had walked out into the street earlier in the morning, someone did try. It is but ironic that when we are most guarded, how the universe preys on us.

She was still searching for freedom.

But there was something about her.

The bus stopped at the gates of our destination. We all filed out and then stood in a circle around our guide.  At 26, Tom was what every guide should be. He was funny, he knew a lot and there was much mischief in his eyes.

We all trooped behind him.  He stopped several times in front of openings in the tunnels. The first time we did, he asked for a volunteer and I ran to the front. The hole was small, and I had to wriggle my way down into the underground passage. Some of the Australians and Europeans could not even fit inside, so small were the tunnels.

We walked on. One tunnel, that ran for several kilometres, was so small and narrow that even I could not sit in it. To just be there, I had to lie down. It was so claustrophobic that I was breathless within a minute. When Tom told us that the Viet Kong soldiers, young men and women, their families, their kids, had lived in those tunnels for 7-10 years, had crawled through them, ate, drank and lived there for ten years, there was a hushed silence. It was impossible to imagine how they had survived, of their rat like existence for years at a stretch, their bravery, their absolute lack of choice.

 Whenever Tom spoke of the gruesome war his voice dropped and the mischief disappeared entirely.

It was one of the most beautiful tours I went on, in my one month trip. Go for the Cu Chi Tunnels Tour if you ever go to Ho Chi Minh City.

After three hours, we were ready to board the bus. I went to get a coke for myself, and by the time I returned, two German boys had sat beside Nadine. Right.

I plonked myself behind the driver and looked out of the window. As the bus moved, the breeze hit my face. I kept thinking about what Tom had told us, about the injustice of the war.

Later, I looked at Nadine. They were all talking in German so I could not join in at all. It was alright. My journey is one of a solo traveller’s. I meet people, I talk to them, and sooner or later we find other interesting people to talk to. Nadine had just met some more.

Hey Nero, would you like to have dinner later tonight?,” she suddenly asked.

I looked at the two boys. A couple of years ago, the Indian football federation had invited Bayern Munich to play a match with the Indian national team in honour of Baichung Bhutia’s farewell. They trounced us 4-0 in Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium, New Delhi.

I nodded my head at her. “Indiaaa, Indiaa” my head stupidly said. Baichung, it is alright, you can thank me later.

When I dropped her at her hotel, it was close to 7 pm. We decided to meet sharp at 8 pm. “I am German, Nero. We are very punctual people. Don’t make me wait.”

“Please, I am the most punctual man on the planet. Of course I shall be on time.”

I reached at 810 pm. Not my fault. They were serving free beers in my hostel. And now I was late.

She wasn’t there. I asked the hotel manager if he knew where she was and he shook his head. I asked her if I could go to her room, and he refused. I waited at the lobby for some time, but she never came.

At 830, I left and walked to main road. It was okay for her not to wait, I had broken the deal after all.

She was sitting there in the first shop, talking to two old men. She told me that since I had not come, she had decided to wait at the first shop on the main road. The two old men looked on at us, sad that I was taking this lovely little creature away from them.

The backpacker street in Ho Chi Minh is one of the most vibrant places in Vietnam. On both sides of the road, there are a line of shops selling fast food and beer. But they don’t have any seating inside. Locals, tourists, backpackers all flock to the street and sit on the pavements. The food and alcohol is served right there, on the pavement. It is an amazing sight. Hundreds of people sitting on the pavement, talking to their friends, strangers, playing cards, spilling beer, eating chicken, screaming in the din. In one such small spot, did Nadine and I occupy a little space for ourselves.

We spoke, and we spoke a lot. From time to time, someone would bump into us and everybody would laughingly apologize. We ordered beers and we ordered food. It was her last night in Ho Chi Minh City too. Somewhere, she told me she had a boyfriend back in Germany. That she would see him in a fortnight’s time in Korea. That she had never spoken to someone as much as she did to me, since she had left Germany. She asked me if I still wanted to spend time with her, knowing that she had a boyfriend. We kept talking.

It was close to 1 am. We walked back on those streets, to the music of the bars. A few prostitutes came out and asked me to join them, and the two of us just laughed. The road was wet, and we jumped over the puddles. Impulsively, I announced that I wanted to stay an extra day in the city. I had less than a week left in the trip, and with that statement I had just said goodbye to one extra day in Cambodia. Anybody who has been long enough on the road will tell you that travel at the end of it all is not just about the sights, but about the people you meet along the way.

As I dropped her outside her hotel, all that we could hear was the loud silence of the street. Somewhere a clock chimed one. I looked up from my feet, and we smiled at each other. She said that she would like to stay another day as well. As I walked into the night, to my hostel in the adjoining street, I hopped and kicked a few empty cans into imaginary goals.

Nero, I’ll come to your hostel at 9 am alright? Don’t keep me waiting. I am German."

“Please. I am the most punctual man on the planet. I shall be there at the lobby at 850 itself.”

So, it was no surprise that the next morning I woke up late. As I scurried and brushed and washed myself and tumbled down the stairs to the reception, she had already been waiting for ten minutes. Grinning is my usual way of getting out of trouble.

“So what are we doing today?” I asked her. She told me she had seen a French movie once, and it was set in this city. That it was a beautiful romantic story where the girl had met the guy in Chinatown and that she would love to see that place. I nodded my head.

As we walked out into the street, I noticed that Nadine looked much happier. She was wearing a dress, and though it was still sober, it was a marked difference from the formal shirt and trousers she had worn for dinner. I could not stop laughing the previous evening, when I saw her in that, and she had stood out among all the backpackers sitting on the pavement in their shorts and vests and sometimes even topless selves. “Schoolteacher”, I had been teasing her.

The bus took us to Chinatown, and there really wasn’t anything romantic about the place. It was just an ordinary market and we walked around in the heat and noise of it all. But Nadine, she was still happy. She had also stopped thinking.  The previous day, she had been very nervous about the traffic. Today, she just kept talking as we crossed the streets. Worse, she neither looked at the cars, nor the traffic lights. As we decided to go to the cafe across the street, and I moved ahead, she came hopping behind and a bike narrowly missed her.

Why the hell are you not looking at the road?”

You are there to do that.”, she said smiling. Truth be told, I did not really have any cocky answer in reply.

Nadine was finally learning to let go. The German was now trusting a foreign country. A girl was now letting her soul take her decisions. I don’t think there was as much love, as there was comfort in the air.

We took the bus again. We spoke of her country and mine, her dreams and mine. We missed our stop. As I realized that, and rushed to the front to tell the driver to stop, she laughed and asked me to come back. That it did not matter.

It was hot. We stopped at a park and sat on the benches. We watched kids playing. An old man, eighty or more, came to us and asked if we would play with him. I looked on as Nadine and he played, kicking and laughing, not having a common language but just using signs.

We waved him goodbye after an hour and left. Later that evening, we walked around the city. Somewhere I became quiet. I asked her if she would leave with me for Cambodia the next day, and she said that she had just come from there. She asked me if I could go with her to Dalat and northwards and I told her I had just come from there. I had only four days left in my trip, after which I was to fly back home from Bangkok.

I do not really remember where we had dinner. It was mostly quiet.

As I dropped her outside her hotel, all that we could hear was the loud silence of the street. Somewhere a clock chimed one. I looked up from my feet, and we smiled at each other. It was but time to say goodbye. She said that she would come to India some day. I asked her to have fun in Korea. If she cried, I did not see much of it, for I was staring at my shoes hoping to find something fascinating in them. Somewhere we hugged lightly, and I left.

My journey is one of a solo traveller’s. I meet people, I talk to them, and sooner or later it is time to part. To stretch a moment would be to fight the environment. Sometimes, letting go is just more beautiful.

-----   The End ------

Now Read,

1)  Nero's Backpacking through South East Asia
2)  The Train journey from Jalpaiguri to Delhi
3)  Couchsurfing in Goa: The House near Toff Toff's Pub

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Who wants to go to Bhutan: Into the Realm of Happiness

Did you hear the news? We are going to Bhutan. This June. With a guide. That’s me.  And we have an itinerary. To which we might not stick a whole lot. Travel needs its share of mystery too.

We shall  start in Thimpu, the only capital city in the world with no traffic lights. And of course, we shall pant all the way up to Buddha Point, from the top of which you can see the whole city going about its business. We must also pay our respects to the Takin – that strange animal that looks like a cross between a goat and a bull. Not sure if it will raise as much as an eyebrow. Eating seems to be the only thing it’s fascinated by.

We shall also be in Taschiko Monastery at dusk to see the flag retreat. The last time I was in that serene monastery,  I was smiling and wondering how peaceful I felt among Buddhist priests and that’s when a monk of twenty or so passed me by was singing loudly to himself, “Kiss me baby, kiss me baby hoth tere garam masala”. I haven’t still really recovered.

We shall get our permits and go to Punakha, the old capital of Bhutan. And there we shall go to the Punkha Dzong, sitting pretty at the confluence of two rivers. It is the second largest and second oldest Dzong in the country. We shall sit on the banks and dip our feet in the river. All unsuspecting group members will be pushed into the river of course. Heh, a man must have his fun , right!

Paro should be the highlight of the trip. For we are all going to hike up to Tiger Nest, that beautiful monastery set right at the precipice of the cliff.

But you aren’t on a regular trip with a travel agency, are you? The idea is not just to see a place for its sights or monuments. Any traveller who has been on the road for long enough will tell you that travel, at the end of it all, is not just about the place or sights. It is even more so about the people you meet.  When we travel, we must try to leave our comfort zones. We must try to strike conversations in pubs and bars, on hills and farms. We must learn, we must laugh, we must talk and we must sing. We must love, we must feel attracted, to our friends or someone we meet. Some of my favourite memories from my trip to Vietnam are with four boys from South Africa and the US, running through the jungles and yelling from all we were worth.

We should be okay with getting dirty in the mud. And of course we shall get off from our vehicles when we see a river, and will jump into it. We shall get into the waterfall just before Tiger Nest Monastery and we shall scream in delight when the cold water numbs us.

We must learn local words and eat local food. I have never really met a single local who did not try to help me, when I said "hello" in the local language, and smiled at them.

My first batch is full. 12 boys and girls. And now I am looking for people to join the second batch(June 15-21). I am quite surprised by the overwhelming response. Two weeks back, I wasn’t even sure if I would get one full batch. But as they say, one can't really hit a target unless one sees it.

Fortune, my friend, favours the bold.

I always wanted to lead tours. To meet people, to tell stories, to share culture and to induce madness. If these things make sense to you, and you have free dates in June, why don’t you come to Bhutan with us?

Everyone is going to go up to Tiger Nest Monastery. If someone decides to give up midway, I am of course going to drag you by the soles of your feet all the way up the mountain. Like I said,  you are not on a regular trip with a travel agency, are you?

We are going to the realm of happiness - to the only country in the world that uses happiness as an index to measure development. It is going to an experience.

Come if you can.

--- The End ----

p.s If you want to join in, contact me @  or call me at 07838917760

Here is the facebook link to the trip

Now go on and read,

1) Climbing Tiger's Nest Monastery

2) The Thimpu Book Store

3) Conversations with a Russian backpacker


Monday, March 17, 2014

Nero's backpacking through South East Asia : The Prologue

Top post on, the community of Indian Bloggers
A year ago when I left for my first solo trip to Europe, I knew a few things that I wanted to do. First and foremost, I was going to run with the bulls in Spain. Second, I would stay with Couchsurfers and not in hotels. Third, I would not pre-book any internal transport. And fourth, I would not speak to anyone in India while I was away.

The first motivated the whole trip. The second came about because one understands a city better when one travels with a local. Else, we end up doing touristy things. The third was to ensure that I was completely flexible and could change plans any time. And the fourth, so that I would have to stay out of my comfort zone even when I felt compelled to fall back on it.

What I did not know then when I sat on the plane to Barcelona was that I would fall right under a bull during the race. That when I was in Italy, I’d change a lot of my plans, and head for Croatia. That one night I would have no place to stay and would camp in a forest, and would come face to face with a bear.

That when I came back to India, I would not look for a full-time job.

It’s been nine months since that trip, and life, well life has changed in some ways and not in some others. 

Nine months since that unusual month of 2013, I embark on another month-long solo trip – this time through South East Asia.  Geographically, the idea is to cover Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia. If you look at the map, one can almost draw a circular (alright, maybe oval) route around these countries. The rough plan is to start and end the journey at Bangkok. 

From Bangkok,   I’d probably head to the southern islands (the only part that falls completely off-route) of Phuket and Krabi for some sea kayaking, rock climbing and canoeing through caves and mangrove forests.  Then, I move up north towards Chiang Mai, where the plan is to trek for three days through some forests and waterfalls and spend one night with an ancient hill tribe. Once in life, we must all quietly sit and smilingly stare at an old man of an old tribe, as he smokes on a mountain.

Once back in Chiang Mai, I’ll take the slow boat to Laos.  The very idea of just sitting on a rickety motor boat, with its paint half peeled off, and slowly chugging along on a river sounds extremely seductive to the writer in me.  Hopefully, it would hold more power over me than the giant mosquitoes and insects that hover about. The Mekong river, on which we shall set sail, is the 12th largest river in the world, and for Laos – a country full of mountainous terrain, the river is the principal transport.  It also flows through China, Burma, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia.  There is a point in the river where Burma, Laos and Thailand meet and it is known as the Golden Triangle area. More famous for rampant drug production, it is an area I won’t be seeing on this trip. In my shallow imagination, I see restless men lurking between forested trees, some patrolling with guns, some hurrying with wooden crates.

The route from the Thai border to Luang Prabang where the boat docks, is supposed to be naturally stunning and that shall probably have to compensate for any sting operations I was conducting in my dreams in the Golden Triangle.

Back to our docking point. Luang Prabang used to be the capital of Laos till the communists took over. Now, it is a charming city full of provincial French buildings, wooden houses and smiling monks. Must walk on the streets and try some authentic Laotian food.

The city’s close to the Vietnam border and hopefully I’ll get a fast bus to Hanoi. In Vietnam, a group of college kids have promised to show me around their city, should I teach them a bit of Bollywood dancing. Then, a girl who’s studying English literature in university wants to take me to her home, which is in a small town, so that she can talk in English with me and show off her skills to her family.  I shall probably miss out on her brother’s wedding which is in April. Damn bad luck, it would have been so nice to see a Vietnamese marriage.

There are so many plans, and I do not really know how many will materialize. I mailed a couple of animal organizations in Cambodia and Borneo, asking if they would let me volunteer with elephants and orangutans. All of them charge high fees from the volunteers so that looks quite unlikely.  Then, a village school in interior Cambodia replied to me and said that they would like it if I could come and spend some time with the kids. I have no idea what I shall tell them, maybe to chase their dreams.

A year ago, when I left for Europe, I knew a few things. First, that I wanted to actually do some of the things I put on a bucket list. That, I would write about those stories when I would get back. That I would make a few more friends.

What I did not know then was that nine months later, I would want the same things still.

-----  The End  ------

Now Read:

1) Nero goes to Spain
2) The Sikkim Bhutan Series: Prologue
3) The Mahindra Adventures: Prologue

Sunday, March 9, 2014

The Ganga Kayak Festival: A Racy Affair

Top post on, the community of Indian Bloggers

Somewhere a clock strikes twelve. I don’t hear it as I stand next to the door of my train compartment. It is dark. In the rhythmic movement of the train, in the silence of the bogeys, a hundred questions ring in my head. It’s been 9 months since I quit my job. Does all this travelling really make sense? In my childish desire to wander, am I putting too much at stake, am I drifting? Would it be better to go back and work in an office space?

I push my head outside the door, and let the wind hit my face. As my eyes close, so does my mind.

Next morning, I reach Haridwar railway station at 8 am. I am now even more restless than the previous night. The train’s late by 2 hours. By this time, I was supposed to be in Rishikesh, at the meeting point in Tapovan. A shuttle was supposed to transfer me from the prefixed point to the event area. Now, I will have to find my own way to get there. I wonder if I should have come on the trip in the first place. The previous night’s questions are still preying on my mind.
I am not used to doubting myself. As close and exasperated friends would testify “He is too deluded and narcissistic for that.”

I finally reach the event area at 10 am, hunched up in a Bolero with a group of musicians. In front of me lies the Ganga, flowing furiously and shimmering turquoise green.

A huge banner proclaims ‘Welcome to the 2nd Edition of the Ganga Kayak Festival’

I walk up a narrow path, to the top of a hillock and meet Jennifer – the friendly event organizer. Later I am introduced to Anil, who is from The Outdoor Journal - one of my favourite adventure magazines.

As we talk, the wind hits my face again. This time I do not close my eyes.

Anil and I walk down to the river and stand with the kayakers. There are over 50 of them.  The large majority are Indians, but  4-5 have also come down from UK, Canada and Norway. The Nepali team is a serious threat in the competition.

Already, I can feel the change inside me. I can’t stop feeling happy. Here, in front of me, are men I do not know at all, men I haven’t seen or heard of ever, but like. I look at them, at their brown burnt faces, and it speaks of the amount of time they have spent under the sun. I look at their forearms and it speaks of all the rowing they have done over the years.

A lot of the Indian kayakers are from Uttarakhand, Himachal and Ladakh. They all look like boys. I am standing with India and Nepal’s top kayakers and they are all boys. Most of them work as rafting guides. I have a feeling they aren’t bathing in money. Kayaking is still a nascent sport in India. Maybe it isn’t even looked at as a sport yet, more as a hobby or an adventure activity. The Ganga Kayak Festival wants to change that notion.

It is the brainchild of the well built Bhupendra Singh Rana or ‘Bhupi’ as the local community lovingly call him. An expert kayaker himself, Bhupi has kayaked in the White Nile in Uganda, in Austria and other parts of Europe, and all over India. It is now his burning desire that kayaking gets better recognition in India, that kayakers get more opportunities, that they can stand up to international competition, and eventually the sport gets Olympic representation from India.

Once the opening ceremony is done with, the kayakers move towards the banks. There are flags at the starting point and the end point of the race, and they will all go into the river one by one. The winner will be decided based on timing.

A spectator table has been set up on the hillock for people to get a birds eye view of the race. The commentator announces the name of the first kayaker, and the lad is ready and sitting in his kayak on the top of a ramp. When he hears the ‘Go’ command, he pushes the kayak and it slides down the twelve foot ramp, into the water. With fast strokes, he speeds and steers his kayak towards the rapids. Everyone cheers. Some of the kayakers are screaming out advice to him. He cannot hear them over the roar of the Ganga, but they try anyway. This is sport at its purest.

One by one, the kayakers step into the water.  Here at the Golf Course stretch of the river, the rapids are quite powerful and it is a tricky business to manoeuvre through them. A few kayaks unbalance in the rapids, and overturn. But the kayakers roll over within seconds and continue paddling furiously to the finish line.

A little later, Anil and I walk along the bank. There are a number of rocks that are jutting out into the river, and end very close to the rapids, so the two of us hasten in that direction. We spend the next hour, near this curve, sitting on some rocks right next to the rapids, watching the river swirl, dip, roar and overwhelm. We watch the kayakers come towards us, and as they weave and toss through the rapids, our knees, our muscles, our arms twitch with anticipation. I know when I look at Anil, that he loves the outdoors just as much as I do, that there lies a sportsman in him, that if given a chance he would love to get into a kayak and battle the river. I know it, because I feel the exact same way.

Rahul Talwar Photography
I am introduced to Tipu, a mountain climbing guide. Sitting next to him is another boy, ‘Tony’. Anil tells me that Tony is the coach of the national climbing team. I stare in disbelief. He looks like a wiry kid. He looks so normal. A writer could not have put the previous sentence in a more crude way. Nor more honestly.

I talk to them for a while and then clamber over the rocks till I reach and sit over the rock right in the front.  One wrong step, and I shall fall right into the rapids. I can see it swirl below me.  But I am overwhelmed.  The river is so green and cold. The mountain air so pleasant.
It is a Wednesday afternoon. Every single person I know is sitting in an office. I realize now that I couldn’t be all that wrong.  That maybe this is how I want to live my Wednesdays and other days, in the outdoors, near a river, a mountain, an ocean, in the company of people like Tipu and Tony.

Around 4 pm, Anil and I ask Jennifer the route to our camp. We are staying at the Elephant Brook Resort camp. Behind the hillock where the commentators, the staging table, the volunteer tent is set up, a shallow stream flows between two hills. Jen tells us that if we walk along the stream, we shall eventually reach the resort after 2 kms.

Anil and I scramble over the rocks. The route is pretty. Brambles come up routinely as obstacles. So does a huge family of langurs along the way. As we plod one, there are a few horses grazing on the opposite bank. They trot across the water to our side, and I run my hands over one’s skin. We walk on, and a light drizzle starts. Sometime later, we reach the resort.

In the night, I sit with Tipu, Tony, the Outdoor Journal guys and a few kayakers. It is cold and I am cursing myself for carrying only one sweater. A bottle of rum is being passed around and we are taking large swigs. A bird sings loudly somewhere in the mountains, and one of the men identifies it for us. These men have lived so close to nature.

It is getting late. Tomorrow is the second (and last) day of the festival. There will be the mass boater cross, beginners’ and women’s races held on this day. One of the girls participating is only 14 years old.

There is a concert. Everybody is drinking and dancing. Even the bemused Brits and Canadians try to shake a leg. Bhupi is going berserk, dancing in the centre of a large gang. He sees me and waves madly. I smile back. Later, I step outside the tent and walk to one end of the camp to stare at the stream, at the mountains.

Somewhere a clock strikes twelve. I don’t hear it. It is dark. A hundred thoughts run in my head. Its been 9 months since I left my job. How less I have seen of the world, how innocent these people - these part time athletes part time rafting guides are, how we need many more events like the Ganga Kayak Festival, and how many stars there are in the sky here.

I let the wind hit my face.  The Ganga flows as it always did, and the mountains look over it as they always do. 

--------------   The End -----------

Now Read: 

Monday, February 24, 2014

How I Went to Sonamarg: Kashmir Tour Diaries

Top post on, the community of Indian Bloggers
Disclaimer: This is the second story of the 'How I went to Kashmir' series. If you haven't read the previous one, well, in short, it is the year 2012 and Nero is in Kashmir, as tour leader of a group holiday. Having arrived the previous day, he’s had a trying evening as they all go shopping and in different directions. For hours. What will happen hereafter on the trip?

There are many troubles in the life of a tour guide.  With that profound thought and a snort, I shut the alarm that had been behaving most uncouthly.  The worst , I thought to myself as I flung the blanket in disgust and left my bed 2 minutes later, was to have to wake up before your group did.

As it turns out, there are far greater problems in the world. Loud children at a breakfast table, grandmothers assuming its their right to demand dosas for breakfast in Kashmir, flustered waiters rushing in with dishes that were not in the pre-decided menu, disapproving hotel managers, grumbling drivers waiting outside the hotel, and the ability to keep all these people happy.  Aah, the joys of a vacation.

An hour later, we left for Sonamarg. As tour leader, I sat at the front with Fayaaz, our twenty five year old driver. Throughout the six day trip, he would tell me the stories of Kashmir.

Behind us, everyone was singing songs and being extremely off-key. Packets of chips were being passed all across the mini bus, and the kids were devouring them as if it was their last meal. But that’s what tourist holiday are like eh. I looked outside, feeling the cold breeze on my face. The rain fell ever so slightly, that exact amount of  drizzle which draws you to put your hand outside the window and let the drops slither over your arm. Silently, I recounted to myself all that I should know about Sonamarg, to tell my group once we got there. My research, I congratulated myself, was impeccable.

Uh Neeraj, can you tell me what tree that is?” a voice asked from the background. I turned back and saw an old man beaming at me, positively pleased with his question.

There comes a time in every man's life when he wishes he had actually watched those Krishi Darshan shows on DD. I stared hard at the tree, and strangely it looked just like any tree should – leafy, barky, greeny ..

There are two ways of reacting when you don't know an answer to a question. Either you can do the right thing and accept that you do not know but will get back later with the answer. Or, you can furrow your eyebrows so exaggeratedly that the audience is misled into believing that you do know the answer but god damn forgot it one nano second back. It's a trick I have mastered over years of not knowing answers in my school, college and MBA years. I chose the second approach and went about furrowing, exaggerating, furrowing some more.

It’s a kikar,” Fayaaz whispered softly. “Kikar” I boomed loudly to my audience. “Used for firewood, and in building fences,” Fayaaz muttered again. “Used for building fences and hedges. And also as firewood,” I declared with the voice of a man who had been talking about Kikars all his life. The old man looked satisfied now.  And I, well I winked at my driver, and the seeds of a new friendship had been sowed.

Sonamarg is an approximate 56 kms drive from Srinagar. It lies on the Srinagar – Ladakh route, and is usually the last halt on the Kashmir side.

We stopped at a roadside dhaba on the way , and rushed to eat the steaming hot pakoras that a young lad was cooking on a slow flame. Its back opened out to a gurgling stream. The kids enjoyed splashing water on me, and the parents enjoyed their kids splashing water on me. I bore it, all the while feeling like a martyr.

Once the tourist cars reached Sonamarg, they were made to halt at the check point. The mountains should have overwhelmed our every sense,  for they rose everywhere wherever our eyes could go. However, it was our immediate surroundings that drew our attention, unfortunately. For as soon as  the vehicles came to a halt, a melee of  young Kashmiri boys rushed towards us, offering their services, extolling their horses, doing anything to have you pay them.

It is not a pleasant sight, the way they madly scramble towards you. Behind them are small tents. Once you hire the services of a guide, they usher you to these tents and you can change into your rented snow clothes. Small, overworked, weak ponies stand nearby, waiting for yet another journey into the mountains.  There are 4-wheel drives ready to take you up too, but then at that moment you think you are Robin Hood, Don Quixote and Rana Pratap all rolled into one , as adventurous as can be. Hence it's only a horse you want to mount. Tourists will try to clamber onto the horse’s back, and since most of them have never done so before, they will push wildly at the saddle, jerk the reins, dig their shoes onto the animal’s body, grapple with its neck all to just clamber on top of it. It is a living thing, you know. If only I could punch you for being so insensitive.

The journey up the mountains to Thajiwas glacier is amazing. As you trot ahead, one pony step at a time, the panorama literally opens up to you and you can see the different hills coming out of their hiding and taking shape.  While the lower hills are half brown, as you go higher, everything becomes pristine white.  I took all of it in, but a part of me couldn’t stop worrying about the pony and my guide. “Rani”, said Pervez (my young guide) when I asked him the pony’s name. You really are a queen, little one.

The path gradually became narrower. And more crowded. The melted snow had turned the mud to slush, so it became even more difficult for walking. Some of the horses veered around the edges of the cliff, and a few people shrieked thinking they might fall down the gorge. Pervez just smiled. He and the horses had been here too long, traversed this path everyday and were sure of each step they took. It would take some doing for a horse to actually fall down the cliff.

When we reached the snow boarding point, there was a huge number of people there. It should have tainted the beauty of the place, but so massive were the cliffs, so jagged their faces that you could not help but feel excited. The sport of snowboarding involves a wooden sled, dragging it up hill and then sitting on it and sliding down the slope. The bad part is that here, a man pulls you and the sled up the slope.  Everywhere boys were pulling kids, mothers, fathers on the sleds up hill and it took every bit of their muscles to do so.  I exchanged positions with my fellow,  and tried to pull him and the sled up the slope, and I slipped, skidded, heaved for ten feet before stopping and laughing  at the fruitlessness of it all.

Just walk up the hill with your boy, people, instead of making him pull you up on the sled. It’s the right thing to do.

We left Sonamarg in the evening, and went back to Fayaaz, the mini bus and darling Srinagar.  Earlier, we had played in the snow - even the adults gamboled about like mad kids, laughing and screaming. Then, a kid could not be found for some time and there was chaos - a crying mother, a furious grandfather, and a darkening sky. 

But those have not been detailed, for Sonamarg, much like any or all of Kashmir is not about the tourists – it is about Pervez and Rani. It is about the hills we saw. It is about the slush and the snow.

Aah, the joys of a vacation.

In Case you haven't read part 1 of the series - here

You can also read,

1)The Thimpu Bookstore
2) Dancing with a man in Malaga airport