30 May 2006

Return to firm Earth

We got off the train at Dimapur, at noon on the fourth day... felt weird standing on firm ground, without the scenery whizzing past... we foud a little place called Hotel Skylark... walking up the stairs late one night, I saw a woman clutching a towel wrapped around her, rushing from one room to another... and I watched the door shut... and there was a guy lying on the bed from the room she was coming from... he had a glass of water in his hands and the most content look in Dimapur that day. There is a little note in every room which says "You're not allowed to bring in women guests." Paulo's feminist sentiments were churned up.

Walking around the streets of Dimapur that evening felt weird.. it felt like a different country - a dangerous country. We invited weird stares, but soon got used to it.. the city shuts down by 6:30 - 7... so we were back at the hotel... I couldn't believe that we actually made it to Nagaland... seemed like a big joke during my college days... discovered that it's really quite developed.. oh, and I couldn't believe that Paulo actually chose to make the trip with two 'almost random people' (in her own words)... I can think of only one other girl (Maitreyi Mundo) who'd do it... requires real guts to step onto those alien streets, to accept those weird looks, get used to the random strangers as travel-companions, and still retain the open mind.

27 May 2006

The Great Optimist

Random conversation, only in India...

When does this train reach...?

Let's see, today is Thursday, so we have Friday, Saturday, Sunday... Sunday afternoon!

I always thought that anecdote was a big joke, only fit for discussion forums (like the one on the Lonely Planet website, which is where I picked it from)... 62 hours on Chennai-Dibrugarh Exp., from that beautiful Egmore station to Dimapur...

The train was like a little self-sustained community of sorts... people did everything any normal person would do at home... Joy, in his efforts to stay clean (I dunno why he even tries), used a chopped off water bottle to bathe in the train... I thought that was pretty crazy, till this guy took a full sized steel bucket, like the kind used to water gardens... Paulo didn't shit for 4 days... and didn't fart either... dunno how she does it... maybe she burps? ok sorry, that was gross.

Then one guy came along selling cameras and all kinds of digital gadgets... and a landline telephone... now I don't understand why anyone would buy a telephone on a train... like the steel-bucket dude, someone had to give me a bigger shock, so along came this guy selling a music keyboard... now, who on earth would... ok, I'll stop... I guess someone, somewhere has bought a keyboard and a telephone on a train, hence the optimism... I guess when people are sitting on a train for 4 days, with nothing much to do but stare at each other, they wouldn't exactly mind buying a telephone... the train must be a good place to advertise.

There was one guy selling lemon tea... he chanted 'lemucha' like it's the gayathri manthram... for some reason, everytime I listened to him, 'le-mucha' translated into 'the urine' in my head.

4 May 2006

The Longest Day.. & The Last Post

As we rode downhill from Kashmir, we passed thru the beautiful town of Udampur, which had some of the best roads that I've ever rode on... and by sunset, we were on the plains, entering Jammu... a bunch of obese cops stopped us, asked standard questions, and started a yawn-inducing lecture on The Adventures Of Two Daredevil Jammu Cops During Their Rebellious Youth... we rode in darkness from Jammu, on the beautiful NH-1, and arrived at Pathankhot by 10:30, and found a dingy little excuse for a room by 11.

Just as we were unloading the bike, some cops wanted to check our luggage and generally harrass us... I watched as he dug his hand into my bag and kept asking irritating questions... then Joy came up with the last of his master tricks for the trip... he walked up to him, and held out his ID card for his Human Rights course at the Indian Insti of Human Rights, Delhi... the cops were shitting bricks. They profusely apologised for the inconvenience, and wished us the most wonderful stay any tourist has ever had in Pathankhot.

We crashed like dead men, and woke up to the kind of unexpected gloom which leads to instant disorientation. The skies had transformed into dark grey overnight, and then, just as we started rolling for the day, it started pouring, like all the Gods chose to pee at the same time and place.

Gopal and I were on the Enfield, and followed the usual technique for riding in darkness, heavy rain... we'd closely follow a bus' tail-lamp, allowing the bus-driver to have the pleasure of dodging cows, stray dogs and humans... we couldn't turn around to see anything, because of the rain, and so we rode on, assuming that Joy wouldn't have a problem with riding on the dead flat, neatly laid NH-1... we didn't think much of the rain then.

I have to tell you about the Dhaba food on NH-1. It's simply the most delicious tandoori food that has ever gone down my throat. The best part is that the food doesn't saturate the tongue at all. Like I could never get sick of the taste, no matter how much I hogged. So I only stopped eating when Joy could spot some food at the top of my throat when I opened my mouth wide.

Anyway, there was no sign of Joy, and we thought he must've passed us with one of his mad overtaking maneuvers in the rain... so we rode on to reach Jalandhar by noon. And we get a call from some random number, and it's Joy. He said the bike got killed by the rain, and that he has no money on him, because his wallet is in my bag, on the enfield, and he's still close to Pathankhot, a good 70 kms back from where we were.

He sold off some petrol to get money to fix it, but the bike conked off for a second time, not too far down the road, but far enough to get him stranded in the middle of nowhere on that highway. So he pushed the bike for 2 kms and called us again, to tell us that we have to come back, that the mechanic has dismantled the engine completely... major problems, like the bike is in coma or something... we were irritated, depressed, angered... and a lot more. But we rode back 70 kms, in the rain... passing by the same scenery for a second time was painful, and the thought that we had to ride back the same way, killed what little energy we had. So Gopal and I cursed our hearts out for the first half an hour, and then we were just too tired and disoriented... we rode in silence... we didn't have to talk to know what's on the other's mind.

We reached Mukherian, where Joy was stranded, but standing outside a mechanic's shop with a big grin on his face... that's the only time I've ever felt like strangling him to death so badly. We screamed at him, while he screamed back at us, saying that we should've watched out for him, and ensured that he was following us... it was our mistake too, and it was hard to digest back then, in all the anger and madness... we should've watched out.

It took all of 20 ruppees to clean the carburettor. We rode back 70 kms in the rain, for 20 bucks. Funnily, I think if the bill had come up to 200 or something, we would've been happier that evening.

We rode back, this time being treated to a pretty sunset on NH-1... with the trees bordering the road glistening in the dampness, and the rain had let up for just a bit... somehow, thru all the shit, the soft yellow evening light brightened our moods, and for those 2 hours, we were really happy, like nothing ever went wrong that day.

Suddenly darkness engulfed us, and it started pouring again... the pulsar's electricals are so complicated that it's just looking for an excuse to have it's fuse blown up... and as we approached Jalandhar, there was a bright spark on the pulsar, and the engine died. The rain got worse, and we removed the fuse and rejoined the wires... and the pulsar was back alive... that ride was really painful. Darkness, countless headlamps making my eyes go blind, and the unforgiving rain... I don't know how we survived that period of madness, but we did... and arrived at Jalandhar late that night. Now the enfield chose to die, and we tried our hands at the carburettor, but it was not in any mood to obey us... so we pushed it for a kilometer, sometimes in knee-deep water, and ended up at this old, dusty, shady lodge... our room appeared like it had been locked up since Independence... dust everywhere, and there was dampness in the air, so it was a messy combo.

We opened our bags to see that, despite the tarpaulin sheets covering them, rain had found a way thru the small holes, and every single piece of clothing was wet. So we spread out all our clothes, all over that poor little room. I slept in my undies that night, cuddling under the bedspread to fight off the cold... but that's the beauty of fatigue... it helps overcome things like cold, dampness and dingy, dusty surroundings.

The next morning we woke up, praying for some dry weather... Gopal was adamant that we haul the bikes and ourselves onto some train heading to Delhi... he was thoroughly disoriented. So was I, but I chose not to show it because he did. We can't have everybody going down with the plan at the same time. So we egged him on to put in one last attempt... Joy was angry and I was disappointed with the idea of not riding back... because that would be like a huge blip on the adventure... the thought that nature actually got the better of us was unthinkable.

I cranked the enfield, with a silent prayer, and immeasurably thankfully, it came alive... and it stayed alive for the rest of the day. We rode mostly in silence that day... hogged the last of the dhaba food for the trip, and slowly things cheered up as we approached Delhi late that afternoon... we were back to our old crazy mood, joking and laughing... and I must say that the fresh, dry wind on our faces helped us more than we realise. Gopal cranked up and rode at 100 for a long stretch... and we felt good. Almost like the day we started out.

We reached Delhi that evening, and felt the drag of the traffic, but we were too excited to complain... we reached Gopal's room at Khatwaria Sarai, and parked the bikes and killed the engine, intoxicated with a sense of accomplishment. We did it.

Gopal's friend and roomie - Amrish, came home from work, and we couldn't stop talking about the trip... we showed him the photos on the handycam, and narrated as much as we could remember... the return to the real world is always weird. It hit us then, that we'd done something so outrageously brilliant. Three guys, with no real experience on bikes, not much money, or time to cushion our falls, going out and living a dream for 16 days... armed with nothing but an open mind and faith in ourselves... I can't count the number of times Joy, Gopal and I would've read thru the little box section in the Lonely Planet guidebook, about the Manali to Leh bike ride... how it always seemed like a magical dream... for some reason, it seemed so far away that we never thought of it as a dream worth pursuing beyond a point... and then it really happened! We couldn't believe it. I still can't.

After the trip, I got back home, to report to work... and worked for 8 months in a factory. Hated the four-walled confinements, the cubicle, the comp, the restricted thinking... and I wrote CAT, and now I'm off to IIM Indore. I quit and travelled to Madhya Pradesh, Varanasi, Calcutta, Trancquebar, Pichavaram and Varkala... now I'm off to Nagaland and Arunchal with Joy and another friend named Mridula... the last of my backpacking adventures for quite sometime... college starts on June 28th, and thats the last of my free air for another 2 years.

Gopal completed his course in Advertising & PR in Delhi, and came back to Madras... presently working as a Senior copywriter at Rediffusion... he's doing great, having all the fun and women he would want... getting pampered with countless office trips, where he stays in resorts, gets fed like a cow meant for slaughter, travels only in ac cabs on the road, routinely flies... he's getting really spoilt. He's afraid that the backpacker in him is slowly dying... but all he needs is another trip with Joy and me, and I'm sure he'll be back to normal... I don't believe some things can die completely. Rather, I hope...

Joy recently completed his Masters in Mass Communication... he's grown tired of chics, but not junk food... he's become serious about his career and future, but retains the madness and insanity that endears him to so many of his fans... he's seriously looking for a break of some form in photography... I'm sincerely praying that he doesn't get sucked into the normal world of formal shirts, pants and office cubicles... it would be the sad death of a creative brain.

We went to Gokarna for the year-end, with a bunch of other friends... once the three of us trekked up in the night, to get some booze before new year's eve... and for that one hour, it felt like Ladakh all over again... there is something about the way we hit it off... The Tender Trio. After the trip, Gopal and I inherited Joy's slang, and we started talking alike... so people started calling us 'The Twins'.

So that's the story of our Ladakh trip... there is so much more to it than what I've written and shown here... most of them would be boring and irrelevant to someone who hasn't experienced it... try doing the ride yourself, and you'll realise how much more there is to it... it's really unimaginably huge... changed us completely. Just do it. So yeah, that's about it... thanks for reading thru... wish us luck! :-)

3 May 2006

The War Zone

We were lazing around in the wooden slats outside the houseboat, when we met three Israeli travellers (2 guys and a girl) in the neighbouring place... Gopal spent the entire evening showing off and amazing them with his (extensive, I must say) knowledge of the Middle-East.

We were getting ready to ride out somewhere, when this 25~ yr old nephew of Shauk walked by... the three of us took turns to introduce ourselves... then he said - "Omar... I heard there's an Israeli chic in there... I've fucked every single Israeli girl who has stayed here!" The 3 of us exchanged blank looks, smiled at Omar and rode away.

We understood the meaning of 'heavily militarised' while in Srinagar... there is an army jawan posted once ever 30 meters, and a bunker every 100 meters... with sand bags, barbed wires and all that... if we pulled over by the side of the road, the nearest army jawans would rush towards us and ask us a dozen questions... suspicion is too light a word to describe the mood. In some places, one half of the road would be taken over by the army for setting up bunkers.

We felt like we were riding thru a war zone. One could see the toll taken by years of violence in the eyes of the people there. I don't know how people can say that Kashmir is returning to normalcy... I don't think any of the politicians who say that live in Kashmir. It's all too easy to sit in a Delhi fortress and talk crap.

Imagine being a jawan, standing by the side of the road all day... you've seen colleagues, who've stood next to you, being blown to smithereens by suicide bombers... and you don't know who's turn it is next... constant fear, for days, weeks and months together... I wonder what it does to their heads. I think it explains all the irrational behaviour in some of the jawans... like suicides and going on a shooting rampage, killing fellow army men. I bet it does permanent damage to their heads. When some of these people get killed, after all the shit that they go thru for the country, their families get peanuts. They go on protest outside India Gate, get some airtime on ndtv... but it's so depressing.

Majority of us would be scared to walk alone thru an unlit road late in the night... imagine living in a world characterised by perpetual fear of the unknown... and people call it return to normalcy. Bullshit.

I often wondered why we fight so hard for Kashmir, sacrificing so many lives and blowing up so much of our resources... then, when I went there and saw the place... no wonder they're fighting over it. It's so pretty! Everything is green, there are clean waterways running all over the place, the weather is just perfect, the mountain air is fresh and pure... there is beauty everywhere. We're just too soft... shouldn't have conceded anything in the first place... all the non-violence and peace diplomacy is crap. Our wartime leaders are never held responsible for plunging an entire state into violence and fear. Only Airports and Universities are named after them... I can't imagine how beautiful Kashmir would've been a hundred years back.

We lost our way in the streets of Srinagar... Joy went back immediately to the houseboat, while Gopal and I rode around for an hour... when we got back, we had more Omar talk to contend with... he bragged about how women go weak on their knees when he rolls out his charm... Gopal was evidently irritated with Omar's false claims to his Casanova throne... but he let it pass by, and Omar yapped on... and we yawned.

The Israeli hippies were a really nice bunch... the female had six-pacs neatly carved out on her abs... I've never seen a fitter female. She was really smart, funny and sweet. Omar got snubbed and humiliated, all laced with humor. One of the guys was intense, but humorous in a subtle way... the other guy was like Ian Wright on Lonely Planet... made us laugh so much. The common thread that I noticed, was their open mind, free and independent thinking, and living in the moment.

We had a nice chat that evening.. the Shauk's dad joined us, and we spoke about the changes in Kashmir over the years... his perspective was really different and eye-opening... he was deeply hurt that the army men don't trust anybody... not even people like him, who've been here for over half a century... he just wanted an end to the violence, and self-rule for Kashmir.

The next morning, the two Israeli guys, me and Gopal were on the boat (they're called shikaras) to see a floating vegetable market... Joy and the Israeli female were snoring in the warmth of the houseboat... sunrise was stunning... it's not like boating in Ooty or Kodaikanal... where they just dig up a large-sized round hole and pour some water and take us on a boat round and round till we get dizzy, faint and fall off... these are proper functional waterways... the vegetable market (wholesalers to retailers) was OK... it was different.

We were taken to Hasina's Honey Farm. She is the most dishonest businesswoman that I've ever met in my life. She sells flavoured honey... apple, lotus, almond, ganja, opium... she lets the bees out on a farm full of apple trees to get apple flavoured honey... like that. Anyway, she claimed that her honey has medicinal properties... and that between her various flavours, all ailments and diseases known to mankind can be cured... from backpain, diarrhoea and common cold to alzhemir's, cancer and aids... you name it, she had a honey to cure it. Poor docs are gonna become obsolete once her biz expands.

We went to the touristy Mughal Gardens the next day... hated the tourist crowd, and the neatly trimmed trees in the shape of dinos and elephands... it was too artificial for us. After all the natural beauty and wilderness, any form of man-made structure given to nature seemed ugly. So Gopal and I dozed off, while Joy wasted some tape shooting random objects for his doc film.

The next morning, we left Srinagar... on our way out, we were stopped by some random Sardar, who on seeing our backpacks, figured out that we were bikers heading for Jammu, and informed us that we were taking the wrong road... kindness of strangers.

As we rode on, we crossed the Jawahar tunnel, and had the company of countless army trucks and buses filled with army men going back home... then, around one bend, a signboard requested us to have one last look at the Kashmir valley... we did, and then we were off, determined to hit the plains of Punjab before sleep and fatigue conquered us for that night.

Nigeen Lake, Srinagar