Not So Far At All

Abha Iyengar

© Copyright 2003 by Abha Iyengar

Photo of Munsiyari..

I don’t understand myself. I love to travel. Yet, when things start happening, I dig my heels in, and refuse to go. It must be something in-built in my psyche. I have now learnt to convince myself that I have to grab every opportunity to move that comes my way. But the time I am talking about is a few years ago, when I still had to learn a lot about myself.

In 1997, my children (aged 12 and 10 respectively) and husband conspired to take me on a summer trip. They decided we would be traveling by car all the way up the mountains. Not to any ordinary nearby hill-station, of which they are many just above Delhi. The final destination was Munsiyari, an unheard of place at the Nepal border. It was 600 km. away from Delhi and approximately 7796 feet above sea level. I thought they were bonkers to think of such a drive in a small car up the rugged mountain side, but they said they had organized everything. I just had to sit in the car and come along for the ride and assure them that I still believed in the family ‘being’ together- eating, drinking, with some traveling thrown in for good measure.

Somehow they bundled me into the car on an early June dawn, when the soft breeze belied the fact that the temperature would be climbing to over 40 degrees by mid morning. I should have been happy to get an opportunity to escape the blistering heat for a week or two, but then again, as I said earlier, there is something mulish in my personality.

That very evening, we reached Almora in the Garwhal hills, where we stopped for the night. This was familiar territory; I had been here earlier. Almora is nothing much of a place, except that it is in the mountains. It is small town which has the necessary amenities available such as petrol, for which one was thankful.

Our next destination was Chakori, which has pine and oak forests, and a tea estate which has an unkempt air about it,  from which I bought a few kilos of local tea. I had resigned myself to my fate by now, and had to admit reluctantly that the crisp mountain air was doing me a lot of good. At Chakori, my husband, who is a confirmed non-vegetarian, ordered a lot of chicken and rice for dinner. We were to have a feast. Replete, we retired for the night.

The heavens were not willing to let us be.

The rains came down as if the gods had saved it all for Chakori. The water dripped through the chinks in the wooden roof right onto our beds. The lights went out. It was cold and dark, and we shivered within our blankets, bearing the onslaught with grim determination. Somehow we survived the night and were glad when the pale morning sun brought an end to the torrential rain. Some adventurous travelers had shacked up in tents outside the Government lodging where we were staying. I shuddered to think what they must have suffered in the night. We found out later that makeshift arrangements had been made for their accommodation within. The place reeked of humanity.

Of course, we made acquaintances, as travelers do, over cigarettes and endless rounds of hot tea served in thick glasses. They marveled at the fact that we were traveling on to Munsiyari in our small Maruti car. A question often asked was,

“Munsiyari? Where the hell is that?”

My husband then went to great pains to explain where Munsiyari was, how we planned to reach there, where we were going to stay, how the bookings could be and should be done in advance, so much so that everyone was convinced that Munsiyari was the most happening place on earth. He wields a great power of the spoken word, my husband, and if he were a priest, he would have converted everyone to his religion.

And so we took off once again on our great mountain safari. The road now became narrow and less even, as we drove higher and higher. The majestic beauty of the mountains-huge rocks, narrow valleys, mountain streams and waterfalls was all there for us to see. We reached Munsiyari in the late evening, and were glad to have made it to our destination in one piece.

The accommodation was passable and after a simple meal of rice, pulses, and potatoes we decided to hit the sack. The night sky was breathtaking, and through our bedroom window we saw the Panchuli mountain peaks so close that we felt we could reach out and touch them. They were bathed in silver, and the moon shone with such intensity that our room was flooded with its light. Imagine the whole room bathed in shimmering silver light. Naturally, we did not sleep for quite a while. When we finally drew the curtains, the light filtered through softly, making our faces glow. The magic of Munsiyari was working already.

The next morning we drove to a point from where we could see the Himalayan peaks in all their beauty. We carried some beer and chips and found a secluded spot where we could sit and admire nature in all its beauty. The grass was green, the trees of dark pine, and the sky an ethereal blue. The smallest of blue, violet pink and yellow mountain flowers peeked through the grass. I pressed some between the leaves of my diary. In the late evening we mingled with some other travelers who were going further up. They were spending the night in Munsiyari, one of them was even sleeping in his car since he had been unable to get accommodation. The Kumaon MAndal Vikas Nigam provided the only accommodation there, and had limited rooms, already booked and taken. These travelers had their own tales to tell. We discussed places in the hills which we had explored and our adventures. Our dinner, believe it or not, was the same as the night before. The only other option offered was Maggi noodles!

Actually, rice, potatoes and a few pulses was what was supplied to this area, which satisfied the basic subsistence level. The food was cheap and filling. Recent commercial inroads had been made by a few companies, and that accounted for the Maggi noodles, or the satchets of Sunsilk shampoo that we found we could purchase in the small, local market. Munsiyari was advanced in some ways, in that it had ISD and STD booths from which we could make calls to anywhere in India or abroad! It also sold Nikon cameras, binoculars and other imported items. These were most probably smuggled in over the border from Nepal, where such goods were freely available. Despite my protests, my husband bought me a pair of keds from the local market, since I had forgotten to pack mine in. He didn’t want me to slip and break a bone while walking.

Our last day there, I happened to talk to a local fellow who mentioned that Pashmina shawls were available at a place called Dett Darcot. My ears perked up.

“How far is this place from here?” I asked.
“Only two-and-a half kilometers,” he said, innocently. “It’ll take you less than an hour to get there.”
He went on his way, but my brain had started ticking.
It had begun to rain, and we sat inside the room, with no television or anything else to distract us from the fact that we were leaving early the next day.
“Let’s go and see the Pashmina shawls, Vinod,” I suggested to my husband. “It’s only a couple of kilometers by road.”
Believe it or not, we got into the car, despite the rain.

Let me tell you that it took us five hours to reach the place. It was raining, and the road we drove on was a narrow mud road, which wound its way round and round the mountains relentlessly. Once on it, there was no way we could turn back. This was one wild goose chase if there was one, and I kept looking at Vinod to see when he would blow his lid. I guess he was concentrating so hard on making sure that he drove us to that place safe and sound, that he did not think of losing his temper. Evening was settling in by the time we reached Dett Darcot. We had to go down several steps before we entered the village. People here wove the shawls in their homes! We gratefully accepted the tea that they offered us, and since I had come such a long way, I did buy two shawls. I had to haggle a great deal to strike what I thought was a good bargain. So, my trip to Dett Darcot was not in vain.

We returned back tired and spent, and I hugged my husband for being the sport he was. My admiration level for him had also increased; I realized that even if I followed him to the ends of the Earth, I’d be in safe hands (behind the driving wheel). My kids laughed and teased me about the two and a half kilometers distance to Dett Darcot. Of course, I realized that the man who had talked to me had not been wrong. He had meant if I went walking as he did, it would take no time to reach there. By car, the road is much longer. He had not realized that I would never walk the distance, city-slicker that I was.

We left the next morning. My eyes watered as I saw myself leaving the beauty of Munsiyari behind. It still had an untouched quality about it, largely because not many would dare to travel here till such time that the roads really got motor-worthy. I was returning home with more than two shawls. I was carrying back with me the beauty of nights bathed in silver with the majestic Himalayas a touch away. I was bringing back tiny, pressed flowers in my diary as memories. I was holding close to my heart the hospitality shown by a simple people who lived a rugged mountain life. I also realized that an adventurous spirit will take you anywhere, even to Dett Darcot.

I just close my eyes and breathe deep. The fragrance of the mountains fills the air.

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