A walk in the clouds –Shishir Bhate

Himalayan trek 2011

A walk in the clouds 

-Shishir Bhate

Have you ever tried pushing a 3-tonne battle-tank up a hill? Alone? While the driver is standing on its brake pedal?

Or maybe you have tried coming down a sheer rocky mountain, splattered in patches with slimy clay – the kind they make quicksand from – wearing roller skates?

No?

Well, then you’ve never really gone trekking. For, that’s what it felt like to me: all the way up and all the way down.

Nietzsche once said, ‘All truly great thoughts are conceived while walking’. And it was while I was huffing, puffing and gasping my way up and down Ajoba (Ajaparvat), the only motivating thoughts that kept me going were the kaleidoscopic variety of plans I made to find the most torturous – and gleeful – way of throttling my Unnecessary Hiker friend, Reuben, and his partner in crime who talked me into the trek, Preeti.

I vowed the next time anyone of them asks me out on a trek, I would tell them – with as much insolence as I could summon – to go take a hike, preferably a one-way hike.

But the warmth and the hospitality, the spirit and the camaraderie, the naughtiness and the levity, the concern and the carefulness, the sensitivity and the kindness this eclectic bunch of hikers showered on strangers like me and some other first-timers during the entire trek, made me chuck away all those murderous thoughts.

Their warmth was stuff that forms the foundation of fine friendships and spawns a lifetime of memories. Thank you, guys.

Anyway, before I get mushy, let me speak of what I really felt before I melt into a puddle of emotions.

What was meant to be a simple trek turned into a sort of a spiritual journey – with an extremely heavy dose of physical exertion thrown in, where not only did you learn about the new facets of others whom you thought you knew pretty well, but also about yourself. It was an incredible experience disguised as a trek.

There was, however, nothing disguised or subtle about the pain I nurture as a result of subjecting my body to sudden physical violence. I now have excruciating aches in places I didn’t even know I had places.

Himalayan trek 2011On my singular, slender frame, which is kept together by some bones and a few raw nerves, there is nary a sign of fat or muscle – but I swear by the Holy book that I positively suffered multiple muscle pulls during the ordeal.

The trek — mind you, this was the ‘easier’ variety, the ‘beginner’s trek’, as defined by Reuben and his Unnecessary Hikers gang – had more than I bargained for. Beginner’s trek, my foot! (both of which, by the way, are aching like they were on the wrong end of a battering ram)!

It began with yours truly, with teenage daughter in tow, zipping across the still slumbering Mumbai in the wee hours towards the rendezvous point. We reached almost half hour before the ‘picnic’ was to begin, only to find that most others were still cosy in their warm beds or ‘on their way’ (which was a euphemism for saying, ‘we are going to be hours late’).

Anyway, as luck would have it, father and daughter encroached upon the parking slot and the hospitality so generously offered by Salil and Sumita Menon at that unearthly hour– boring them with my banter and asking them for tea. Polite people, the Menons, they were kind enough not to let me know what they really thought of me. Instead, I treated myself to a hot cup of tea.

Finally, when the entire flock was rounded up, it was time to begin the trek. Starting off with breakfast on a fast-moving bus to listening to some of the funniest and most creative mash-up of ad jingles and songs, the journey to the base of the mountain was a breeze. Hey, I am calling it a mountain because it felt like the freaking Everest to me (although to some others it might not have been more than a slight bump in the road)!

The first thing that hit me as soon as I got off the bus was the funny smell in the air. I wrinkled my nose and snorted a lot, but it just wouldn’t go away. It took me a while to realise that this was air as it is meant to be in its purest form, minus the pollutants that I am so used to inhaling in noxious Mumbai.

When we got off the bus, we were all cheerful and raring to go (despite the funny smell of fresh air), when Reuben punctured my fully inflated balloon of fancy. “It’s a one-and-a-half-hour uphill walk till we reach the base of the mountain. Then there’s a two-and-a-half-hour climb up the mountain to the spot from where you can see heaven.”

Hell, I thought, panicking like a woman who knows Jack the Ripper is under her bed. Good heavens, I screamed internally, ‘what have I let myself into?’ I glared at Reuben and Preeti and everyone else – from behind my dark glasses — which I later chucked as the green, green grass under my feet started to appear black after only 15 minutes into the walk (it wasn’t the glasses though, it was just pure exertion) – and quickly began to think up some excuses to get out of the predicament I found myself in.

Himalayan trek 2011But you can’t let your only child think you are chicken, so you go along with the flow – like the bali ka bakraa we actually saw later in the evening. So with the heart beating like a racing car, off we went on that loooooooooooooooooooong walk.

About a quarter of the way, the one thought that kept haunting me was: the farther I go, the more I will have to walk to come back. Getting to the summit is optional, getting down is mandatory. Since there was no way out, I decided to test the endurance power of my only body. Frankly, I should have got my only head tested for having been talked into this walk.

But it was too late: by then most of my body parts were functioning independently of the brain. It was as if there was a mutiny in the ranks and the legs did what they wanted to and the arms operated on their own volition.

With only the first part of the trek over, I felt as limp as a wet sock. But we Bhates are made of stronger stuff than I had believed, so I decided to go along on the climb up the mountain through the dense jungle.

By the time I reached the summit (let me call it that, somehow makes my achievement seem that much worthier), I was wheezing like a pressure cooker with a faulty valve and I think I had sweated enough to start off a minor waterfall.

Once I stopped seeing double and the eyes swam back into their sockets, standing on my wobbly legs I focused at the heavenly sight before me. It was everything Reuben and gang had promised; in fact, more than what they had promised.

The scene was ethereal.. it was as if we had stepped into the misty land of cottony clouds.. soft as smoke and smooth as silk… And it was extremely windy… Then came the rain as if to greet sore limbs and tired minds. It was cool as could be… felt like you had carved a giant watermelon and had curled up inside it….

There were many firsts for me here too: first time I was going on such a trek in 20 years, first time I sweated as much as I did, first time I sincerely harboured thoughts of throttling perfectly fine human beings, first time I saw a goat being sacrificed… It was also the first time I had the experience of cutting off a rather sizeable portion of a lady’s jeans — while she was still in them…!

Himalayan trek 2011Anyway, soon after partaking of various kinds of delicacies, it was time to begin the trek downhill. I did it in half the time it took me to get up the mountain, but I had no hand in it. I had no idea that while I was up there on Ajoba, the track had transformed itself into a bar of wet soap. So I slithered and slipped and roller-skated my way down the hill.

That I reached the foothills of Ajoba without a broken limb was entirely providential: it had nothing to do with my skill. Unfortunately, I have no bruises to show off as mementos. All I have is a mass of aching organs…………

Be that as it may, not only did yours truly make it all the way, the daughter also managed to do it. Despite her earlier misgivings, she hardly seemed any worse for wear. That’s more than you could say for her old man.

Thus ended the beginner’s trek — I am omitting parts where you had to climb out of drenched clothes into dry attire within the confines of the bus – while other wet souls waited outside for their turn to clad themselves similarly…. Modesty forbids.

Anyway, so like that author said: ‘Whether chasing angels or fleeing demons, go to the mountains.’

Thank you, dear Reuben, Salil, Nandu, Raman, Kishore, Gaurang, Darshan, Sumita, Lalitha, Anjali, Preeti – and everyone else whom I might have missed naming here — for helping me visit the angels’ abode and drive my demons away.

There will be more angels to chase and more demons to slay: will do that with you guys on other treks…

Till then, dear Unnecessary Hikers, stay true to your motto: Keep Moving!

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