Sunday, October 17, 2010

The Manimahesh Experience

"Bhakti me hi shakti hai!" (there is great strength in worship)
I encountered these words many a times as I trudged up the high altitude mountains of Himachal Pradesh (HP) on Monday, September 13, 2010, with my two companions Anil and Bali, both volunteers with WWF. Several thoughts occurred to me in a flourish. They usually do when you're doing a monotonously strenous task like trekking up steep, rocky and unfriendly slopes.

My first was bewilderment. Believe me! The 14km trek to the religiously significant high altitude Manimahesh Lake, nestled at an altitude of 4,088 metres above sea level is no walk in the park. It is back-breakingly difficult! No amount of cycling, walking, doing stairs or dancing in the city can prepare you for this partially rocky, partially miry steep trekking route. On top of that, it rains non stop, making it colder. It's no fun to trek drenched and shivering. And still, people come. They are mysteriously drawn to this lake from Punjab, Jammu and HP, just to conquer its insane height and take a dip in the suicidal icy lake.

Old, tottering men and women who need assistance while crossing the street in their hometowns were climbing. Young, middle-aged, children, tall, thin, fat, barefooted - ALL were climbing. And for what??
But how could their faith be so incredibly complete that they can do what they do? "This is the same faith that compels them to kill as well," the thought ran through my brain and the cynic in me smirked. But only for a second. I watched old aunties overtake me (and that too barefooted sometimes or in delicate sandals). Mind you! Reebok does not get you a sexy butt or make your trek any simpler! I was put to shame at my relative incompetence, but I was left in awe at the same time. How did they do it??!!

I got my answer a little while later, about 4km from my destination camp, Gauri kund. Somebody tied lead blocks to my feet and lungs and I found myself dragging my body. I do not know how, but in that state of near collapse, my religion came to me. I'm not an atheist, but I'm not a religious person either. It's like I'm reminded of my religion under two circumstances - at Christmas and Easter, and when I'm in a soup. This instance of course, belonged to the second case. Not to forget the religious enthusiasm around me which was contagious.

I thought of Jesus Christ, the only character I like in Christianity. What I thought, felt and experienced next is too personal to recount but all I can say is that my belief that He was there with me, was comforting. It helped me ascend some of the toughest stretches on those uncordial mountains!

Faith is a strange thing. It makes a believer out of you. You just don't realise it until you are tested.

It was my last resort. After 11km, I couldn't push myself to do any more. It was here that strength of mind, will power and faith failed, before a beyond exhausted body. So when I realised that I'd reached my limit, I shamefacedly asked my companions to get me a kacchar. These were being used by some of the other pilgrims and for the transportation of goods. As a virtue, I dislike riding on top of animals. I feel like I'm disrespecting them. But in that moment, it was either using my useless limbs to climb another 2km or spending the night in the cold dark mountains. Neither was an option.

I was worried. Not for myself but for the poor sould who would carry my weight on the tough landscape for 2.5km in the paling light around us. They brought a sweet looking white kacchar called 'Buggi'. Throughout the ascent, I feared for him. Luckily for him (and my conscience), I soon learnt the tricks to make it easier for him. Pay attention, you might be in the same situation someday.

So when climbing up a slope, keep your body weight forward. Similarly, while descending, pull back your weight. This helps any quadruped maintain its balance and lessens the strain on it. All through the journey, I ignored the gorgeous scenery around me. I barely glanced at the deep purple sky with the aesthetically carved half moon, and the sun setting amongst the distant valleys. My mind was fixed only on two things:
(i) Coordinating my body position according to Buggi's ascent and descent.
(ii) Staying on Buggi. His guide told me to imagine I was riding a bicycle and to balance myself accordingly.

There were times when Buggi preferred to walk on the relatively softer edges of the slope, leading me to tighten my hold, breathe faster and clutch on to my faith in the sure-footed animal I'd entrusted my life to. I kind of figured that he wasn't interested in rolling down the rocky slope and dying any more than I was.

We FINALLY reached, a deeply remorseful me, a very tired Buggi. I think I was more relieved getting off him than he was to let me off. The minute I touched ground, I sat down and took his head into my arms, fondling his face and ears, a silent apology. I felt so so sorry for making him go through that. I'd like to believe that he understood.

The two packets of biscuits in my bag that I'd saved for Buggi were received happily by him. I gave his guide an extra 50 bucks which delighted him. He took off with Buggi, promising to buy him chanas with the extra money.

I learnt something valuable, besides ensuring my fitness levels before embarking on a tough trek. Always trust your kacchar. He knows what he's doing.

My train from Pathankot to Delhi was at 7:05 pm. After a late start that morning, attributed to the lack of proper public transport between Harsar (the starting point of the trek) to Bharmour (our base) and the last minute bus ride and some hitchiking thrown in, I was in a taxi racing towards Chamba. It was three hours from Bharmour to Chamba. From there, I was going to undertake a five-six hour bus journey to Pathankot, from where I'd catch my train. Taxis are rather expensive in the hills, so I couldn't do a taxi all the way.

I was tense. I could not afford to miss this train for it was my birthday the next day and nothing would be worse than to be stuck in Pathankot on it, alone. More than that, mum and all were busy making plans and I just couldn't disappoint them. I had to catch this train!

The driver was a decent chap called Anil. It seemed like everybody I met in HP was called Anil. He reassured me that he'd get me to the bus stop in time. He did. But I couldn't recognise the station as the one I got off at three days ago. He gave me his number (in case of emergencies) and drove off. I asked around frantically for an immediate bus to Pathankot. It was already a little more than 2pm and I had 5 hours more to go. I received the dismal information that buses to Pathankot from this station were infrequent. Merrily, someone told me to sit around and wait for the next bus at 4pm.

I scooped out my cellphone, called Anil right back to where he dropped me, breathed easy the minute I saw him, withdrew some extra cash and told him to take me all the way to Pathankot. There, we were set.

Errr.....not quite. Within half an hour, we got a severe puncture. It took 40 minutes and 4 guys to fix it, while I strolled around uneasily, feeling the tick tock of my watch throb in my veins. When we finally started off again, we realised that we had lost out on precious time. Nevertheless, Anil gave me hope. Hill people are either very optimistic or misleading. At the moment, I chose to believe the former.

We rollercoastered up and down the mountains, watching the sun bathed valleys zipping past. I usually enjoy natural beauty, but my restless mind had only one agenda. For more than two hours we travelled fast. And just when I thought we were close, it happened.

The front axel collapsed.

Right in front of a Wine and Beer shop in the middle of nowhere. When it happened and we crashed to a halt, the image of my train running past me flashed before my eyes. I was reminded of my last Jab We Met experience of December 2008 when I ran to catch my train to Bombay, which I would've easily missed had I not made a dogged dash for it.

We were 35km away from Pathankot, it was 6:15 or so. My train was at 7:05. The locals from the wine and beer shop came out in hordes to examine the incident and my driver looked hopelessly lost, for the first time. That's when panic kicked in. I couldn't believe this was happening to me!!! I mean, I did a crazy trek which had left my legs of little use (even now I was crawling like a tortoise), I hadn't had decent accommodation or a bathroom in days, my birthday was tomorrow, we already made a mistake with the Chamba bus station and survived a car puncture, and now this!!!!!

I looked around at the locals with pleading eyes, asking for solutions. A few drew out cellphones after consulting my driver and made calls to local taxi drivers. But these were either too expensive or would take more than 30 minutes to arrive. There was no question of banking on them. While hurriedly glancing all around for some solution to emerge from the wilderness around me, my eyes fell on a couple of motorbikes parked before the liquor shop. I immediately requested that the journey be completed on a two-wheeler since it was already available and just needed a driver. The men just laughed at the suggestion. They probably thought I was some chick from the city with a dozen pink suitcases in the car.

I marched to the car, my mind made up. Heaved on my heavy knapsack, grabbed my trekking stick (something I couldn't part with even after the trek was over) and my 2kgs of Himachali apples I'd bought for dad. I was ready for battle. When the men saw me approach like this, they suddenly changed their minds. Now it seemed possible for me to be dropped on a two-wheeler. They called out to someone I couldn't see, while I went and stood near a motorbike, waiting for the driver to come and swiftly deliver me to the station.

There arrived on a scene a lanky boy of about 17, pushing forward a dilapidated scooter from my grandfather's era. The smiling men from the liquor shop told me that these were to be my wheels and chauffeur. After a brief moment of reluctance, I threw practicality to the winds and jumped on to the scooter with some difficulty, owing to the burden on my shoulders. In one hand I clutched my stick, held in a way that it would not injure fellow motorists on the road, and in the other I held on to those dear apples, as if they were my way back to the Garden of Eden. The lanky boy got on calmy, put on his worn out helmet. I waved a smiling goodbye to Anil who looked so guilty, and a friendly wave to the men of the liquor shop who I'd never meet again, but who had so endearingly found a solution for a distressed stranger.

As we flew round curves and thundered through straight paths, I grew more impressed with Grandpa's scooter. Though I still feared something just might go wrong, as the pattern had been all day. I also imagined in some kinky part of my mind that we were being videotaped! That we were actually in a movie, playing a scene. It all seemed to fit. The dramatic disasters. The curious coincidence of our taxi breaking down right before a Wine and Beer Shop. Had it been in the wilderness, it would've been a dead end. The strange, yet helpful people from the liquor shop, for whom this probably added some excitement to their routine. The ancient scooter, the lanky driver who I feared might fly off with the wind that hit us. And me, the most dramatic of all. Hair tied up hastily in a bun, red jersey, blue jeans, agitated demeanour, gigantic bag on her back, balancing it somehow on the back of the scooter, a sturdy stick on one side and some apples on the other. Wow! Now that's a sight you don't get to see everyday. You'd probably catch that in some freaky movie, giving me enough reason to believe for a moment that I was in a movie!

While expecting the scooter to break down any minute, I discoverd that my driver (/rider, whatever) was a little ill at ease. I was right about his helmet being worn out because the clasp that is fastened under to chin to keep it on the head was broken. So everytime, we reached Superman speed, he'd have to repeatedly press the helment down to his head to keep it from flying off. I could NOT have anything distract him from his single purpose in life - to drop me to Pathankot station. So my stick was transferred to my left hand which also held my apples. My free right went on top of his head and there it stayed for most of the journey. Many a passerby must have got his/her share of entertainment that day.

Eyes watering, right hand numb, phone buzzing in my pocket and no courage to look at the watch, we made it. We touched the station at 6:40pm. I don't know in how much time we covered 35km! I stumbled off the scooter, happy, breathing at a sane rate and laughing. If it had not been for my manners and the prospect of scaring a local Himachali boy out of his wits, I restrained from throwing my arms around his neck in an affectionate strangle. I thanked him five times before ambling towards my platform, enjoying the sudden luxury of extra time, knowing that I would be home for sure the next day to enjoy a happy happy birthday.

I wondered if the camera was still on me, recording my movements now that the excitement was over. I don't know about you all, but if this movie ever came out in the cinema halls, I'd sure go and watch it!


Freebird said...

.in my opinion faith is not just belief in god..its also belief in human beings..because that's a sign that we still believe

Deepshikha said...

Phew...this does sound like movie stuff. I can imagine how insane it must've been for you..I can feel the desperation just while reading it. I'm so glad you made it on time for your train :)
This is one trip you will never forget and yes, you are getting fit before the New Year...make that your resolution nowwwww...

Lluvia.... said...


Liberty unleashed said...

Must have been your life's most thrilling experience

PS said...

woweee!! It's like a dream adventure trip!! I truly understand that vein throbbing tense moments when u are so sure u are gonna miss that train.. praying the Indian railways sticks to its reputation of running late!:) Im so glad u did this trip & more so.. a memorable one at that!

Babushka said...

Oooooooh! :)

*breathing normally now*

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