Thursday, July 31, 2008

Hard Rain

It was supposed to be a four day trek through paradise. Green giving way to white and the broad, steep trail taking me higher as I reached Ghorepani, where the view kisses the snow mountains of the Annapurna Range.

But I am the rain man and the clouds follow me as I move. Don't get me wrong. I love the rain as much as the next umbrella but when you're trudging up a 75 degree slope as water gushes down in torrents you tend to question your beliefs. Even more, when there's no one in a 2 km radius to sit down and have a good complain. Its just you and the rain and the constant prayer that your shoe souls won't decide to do yet another slip and slide. All that is a boogie on the dance floor compared to the little worm like creatures that take an instant liking to you.

Actually, they're leeches and unlike the imaginary Nosferatu, they are indeed "here to suck yourrr bllluddd." From all the most unlikely places. They could be nice leeches and drink their fill from your feet or even your arms but no. Instead you will be happily squishing your way through some jungle and catch the first human face you've seen in hours scrunch up in horror as they reach out for your neck and pull out a swollen slimy creature dripping with your blood sucked two inches from your jugular. What fun. What a laugh. Shall we sing? Shall we dance?

Are you crazy? Splash and dash brother. That's the only way to escape these little blood lusters. This being a brilliantly planned circuit around the Annapurna range has places to crash and stuff one's face every two to three hours so you can take your pick for accomodation at the very basic and mostly clean lodges that have rooms for a hundred nepali rupees a night with a hundred more for a hot shower. Now food comes at a premium here especially in the off season, when pony trains and porters are less frequent. You could be spending upwards of 700-800 bucks a day to replenish your lost energy. The higher you go the more expensive everything gets. But you like I can save a good amount by not hiring a guide or porter. Doing it alone might not have been the best idea in hindsight but I have no regrets.

Except not seeing the mountains. Did I mention that the wonderful clouds that are my friends successfully obliterated every possible view I could have all along the way. At Ghorepani and Poon Hill, loved and praised for their wall to wall mountains I got to see what it feels like to live in a cloud. Permanently. The fog never lifted although my spirits didn't suffer too much. I splashed my way down realising for the hundredth time that going downhill is so much more difficult since you have to focus constantly on every single step especially since the continuous rain has resulted in a waterfall, through which I gingerly descend.

The rain Gods might have been smirking but I guess somebody else up there seems to like me since I managed to get back in one soaking piece. I shudder to think what might have happened if I had a bad fall up there on my own. But its all good and another experience chalked up from the game of life.

If you don't want similar experiences do the circuit in Oct/Nov or Feb/March. The views are fabulous I'm told. :)

Shanti Stupas

Sunday, July 27, 2008


"It was a terrible time," says my dear Darjeeling buddy, Ujwal, the memory of the Gorkhaland riots of the late 1980s etched in his mind as clearly as the air in the hills. And it was. The official death toll was put at 1200 and many times that number was injured. It's hard to imagine such a time, as I gaze out at a zen-like tea garden, in a Darjeeling, I've swiftly and surely begun to love.

With the brilliant coverage that our nation's fine press gives the North-East, I'm sure everyone knows everything that goes on there. Oh, wait. That's in some parallel universe. Here, no one gives a shit. Until the protests reached this fevered pitch resounding down to the valley.

Twenty years ago, under the leadership of Subash Ghishing, the Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF) terrorised the hills in a demand for a separate state for the Gorkhas, until the wonderful art of negotiation the GNLF, innocuously renamed the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council to have a free run, in exchange for dropping the Gorkhaland ideal.

But corruption and atrocities will only be ignored for so long. In 2007, Ghishing was run out of the hills and a new party, the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM) was formed under the leadership of the Bimal Gurung. They resurrected the ghost of Gorkhaland and are now demanding a state comprising Darjeeling, Kalimpong, Kurseong, a few other regions in the hills and Siliguri. Of these the last has proved to be a thorn in the side for the West Bengal government. As a gateway (albeit a city of squalor) to the whole of the North East of India, Siliguri has the enviable job of collecting a tax and toll from every truck, train or aircraft bearing cargo to and from the region. There's the catch. Even if the West Bengal government was prepared to relinquish control of the hills, mainly prided for tea and tourism, giving up Siliguri would be too big a bitter pill to swallow.

That hasn't stopped the GJM and as I lay languishing in the sweet pre-monsoon of Darjeeling, the chants rent the air, already thick with fog. The looping almost musical Nepali and English cries of thousands of Gorkhas demanding their identity. I'm looked on with curiosity as every other tourist has flown from the intermittent strikes and constant peaceful protests. Whether they are adequately equipped to handle their own affairs is left to a time when they will be given the key. Until then, like my many friends in Darjeeling keep saying, we can only wait and watch.

Obama for Prez

"Someday, I'll be President"

Whether its the unabashedly hilarious satire of Jon Stewart and mate Steven Colbert on their shows or a host of ineptitude on FOX and other 'news' networks, the pages of every major magazine from Good Housekeeping to Rolling Stone, the buzzword is Barack. Obama is on the tips of everyone's tongue, here in the US and its easy to see why. He's run his campaign with alacrity and candour. He refuses to be browbeaten and his policies and ideas are sound and well researched. He has a team, that works tirelessly without any brouhaha, in the lowest possible profile and he has always come across as grounded and simple, all in complete opposition to the current occupant of the seat he's steadily working toward. And he's nursing something that comes at such a huge premium in our current existence. Hope.

I just bought the new Rolling Stone and was delighted at the incisive and sensitive interview that Ed-in-Chief, Jann Wenner conducted with the democratic presidential candidate, who might be the man to change many policies affecting the world in the years to come.

As a happily eternal optimist, I'm hoping too.

Here's a sample QnA
Is there a marker you would lay down at the end of your first term where you say, "If this has happened or not happened, I would consider it a negative mark on my governance"?
If I haven't gotten combat troops out of Iraq, passed universal health care and created a new energy policy that speaks to our dependence on foreign oil and deals seriously with global warming, then we've missed the boat. Those are three big jobs, so it's going to require a lot of attention and imagination, and it's going to require the American people feeling inspired enough that they're prepared to take on these big challenges.


Friday, July 25, 2008

Down The Rabbit Hole

"In another moment down went Alice after it, never once considering how in the world she was to get out again.

The rabbit-hole went straight on like a tunnel for some way, and then dipped suddenly down, so suddenly that Alice had not a moment to think about stopping herself before she found herself falling down a very deep well."

The Nagaur Fort, the sprawling setting for the Sufi Durbar later that December day, begged exploration, not unlike the rabbit hole. And although I wasn't adorned in a blue bowed skirt (Thank God), I took a plunge myself and dived in, through door ways and arches, narrow staircases and panoramic terraces. You never knew where your next step was going to lead you in this many-storeyed labyrinth. That was the best part. :)

Spirit On The Water

Begnas Lake 23Kms from Pokhra, Nepal

Street Walking - Nagaur, Rajasthan