25 February 2006

The Baby Factory

That was the scene for our tea-break... oh, and the tea only cost us 5 bucks each - no additional costs for the 'happening'-quotient of the place.

Towards the end of that evening ride to Lamayuru, which is a beautiful monastery-village in the middle of absolutely nowhere, having crossed nothing but one stray cow for 50 kms, we realized that we’d taken the old, abandoned road. We didn’t really mind the long route, it was just another excuse to ride on. The surrounding dark peaks looked like chocolate brownies, and the stratified layers of earth on the slopes kindled memories of those long-forgotten geography classes spent snoring away to glory… sedimentation and all that.

We crossed the first house of the village late that night, and suddenly there was the house-woman chasing us, announcing ‘100 ruppees for a room! Just 100 ruppees!” She actually ran behind us, begging for us to turn back and consider her offer for a room. That was 100 for 3 of us, and they even offered 3 different rooms for the 3 of us to make ourselves comfortable in. Joy was thrilled at the prospect of staying at a place for just 33.33 per head. It gave him a bigger kick than all the beauty that Ladakh could throw at him.

The House went from being the flourishing first tourist place on the old road, to the impoverished fag end of the new road to Lamayuru. It’s amazing how an infrastructure improvement like a new road can affect the lives of some people. The extreme poverty was instantly recognisable.

The Man of the House ran a baby factory. He had kids of all ages and sizes, and the economic compulsions to stop production didn’t seem to bother him much. The eldest of them was a really cute girl, not more than 10 yrs old. She practically did all the work, never once complaining or showing as much as a hint of a frown. Her dad just sat in one corner, smoking away, while her mum was perennially occupied in taking care of all the babies. We were deeply affected by the life of that little girl… such responsibility and maturity at such a young age. I felt really bad for all the kids. They didn’t make any of the choices that led to their state of poverty. They’re paying up for someone else’s irresponsibility. I don’t know if they will ever have an opportunity to get out of the rut, but I dearly hope there is a way out for these kids.

4 February 2006

The Nastiest Ride

The ride back from Panamik to Leh was one of the toughest of the entire trip.The intense heat from the sun melts the mountains of snow by the roadside, and by the time we reached there in the evening, the World's Highest Road had morphed into the World's Nastiest.

It was deja vu from our ride on the World's Second Highest Road... lack of energy, fatigue, beaten up bodies, icy water in the boots, stiff icy winds, piles of loose rock and a gushing stream on top to ride on... it was all that and worse. I can't quite explain how it felt. Disorientation is too soft a word. We shut everything out of our heads. It was just survival. We didn't think that we were on a trip, doing all these wonderful things... everything seemed trivial. The scenery whizzed past us like a blur. I only remember the soft yellow light from the setting sun reflecting off the surrounding snow slopes and giving us the most beautiful, softest natural yellow lighting imaginable.

This time, we didn't stop to feel the World's Highest Whatever, we didn't give out our widest grins to the camera - heck, we couldn't even hold a camera in our hands. Fingers, toes, cheeks, nose, ears - everything was frozen numb. We just wanted to reach Leh. Alive. Nothing else mattered. There could've been a fortune lying nearby, or the hottest babe on earth parked by the side of the road, and we couldn't have cared less. We had our horse-blinds on.

When we reached the first army camp on the climb down from Khardung La, we didn't need to think before barging into the canteen. Our instincts completely over-ruled our minds that evening. The warmth inside that four-walled confinement cannot be explained. It was the warmest warmth we had ever experienced. We didn't keep count of the number of parathas, omelets and chais we downed... Joy was extremely displeased when he was served an omelet when he'd asked for a half-boil (a.k.a bull's eye). We were just grateful that someone is nice enough to feed us at 18,000 ft., but Joy is so used to blemishless customer-service in the tea-shops in Aynavaram and Vikkivakkam that he couldn't hide his irritation with the omelet. He held it as if it were a dead rat and said "If he doesn't have the knowledge to make a half-boil, he should admit it! How can he do this to me?" For Gopal and me, it was just an excuse to down another omelet. Joy never ate anything that day. I think he has enough reserves of everything to hibernate through a Siberian winter.

So we rode on, engulfed by pitch darkess, with only our headlamps glowing for as far as our eyes could see. I'll never forget that ride. I sat tight behind Joy, holding on to dear life as he showed off his dare-devil night-riding skills.I think he felt like he was riding a bike in some video game... he'd push the limits, take sharp, reckless turns... like if something went wrong, he could press 'Esc' and select 'New Game' or 'Restart'. During one of the innumerous bends, Joy slanted the bike so hard that the enfield's foot-rest hit the road and the bike jerked violently... madness. I bet if anything had gone wrong that night, we'd have been pretty darn close to The End.

But we survived to tell the story... and reached Leh late that night. After much struggle, we found a decent room, ate like we'd not seen food for a week and crashed like we'd not slept since we were born. We were just happy to be alive, and fortunate for all the little things that made the trip happen. We're just lucky. We don't even realise how much.