Friday 12 July 2013

Spiti: Travelogue- Part 1

It all started around 2 and half months ago when I had made the illustration on “Meditation is Inner Space Exploration’, a message which I had got during meditation. A few days later another idea occurred to me. Why not construct a sort of matrix around exploration in the physical world and manifest the same ideas there? I had read a bit about Spiti, not much, but just the fact that it’s like Tibet, probably had registered in my sub-conscious. So again a couple of days later, I woke up and declared to my husband that I’m going on a solo trip to Spiti. “What…Sticky??” he asked. Later I realized that not many people (in my circle) had heard about this place.
I wanted to have a unique vacation, so after some googling, I decided I would volunteer as well travel in Spiti. My tickets were booked and confirmed and details were sorted out but there were times I felt that I’d taken an impulsive decision about traveling solo to a place few had visited (none that I personally knew) and that too for 16 days. There were days, especially when I read about the rape case in Manali (where I was to stop for a day), when fear would seize me and I would ask my husband if he wants to come with me. But Dj being Dj would tell me that I SHOULD go solo and it’s going to be a learning experience for me. And I’m glad I didn’t back out.
Then just a week before I was to leave, the rains were creating havoc in the North with landslides, cloud bursts and flooded roads and airport. Friends and well wishers who knew about my trip stared calling me, some asking me to reconsider, others asking me to cancel. I was utterly confused. Are these signs that I should cancel my trip?, I asked. Just one day before I was to leave, I decided that I would resort to meditation to see how I feel about the whole thing.
I sat down to meditate and surprisingly went very deep within a few moments. I don’t know why but I invoked the Spirits of the Himalayas, Spiti and Rains to guide me. Since childhood I’ve inherently believed in the sentience of everything. In that deep state a got a message: “You are most welcome to come and visit us. We will take care of you. You will be safe”. I opened my eyes and there was this quiet inner confidence that regardless of what I hear in the news or weather forecasts, I will be taken care of. I had been taking daily updates from my travel coordinator in Spiti and he had told me that the road from Manali to Kaza was not yet open because of snow fall and rains and wasn’t sure when it would open. I told him that I would anyways come to Manali and then take a call.
I left on 19th June and reached Delhi. The Delhi airport which had been flooded till the previous day was dry and clean. There was no rain that day too. I was hoping that I would get a nice co-passenger in the bus to Manali and that came in the form of a cute little school girl.
In Manali, I ditched the tourist spots and instead chose to go to Van Vihar- a forest full of tall cedar trees. I carried a book and my favorite music and sat watching the play of sunlight on different shades of green with the sound of a distant river in the background.

In Manali with giant trees.
On 21st morning I was scheduled to leave from Manali and till 8 pm the previous day I had no confirmation about whether the roads were open. The driver of the share taxi said he would call me at 2.30 in the middle of the night to confirm and if it was open we would leave at 3 am.
On 21st the driver did confirm that the road was open and that we would leave at 3 am. I remembered the message I got during meditation that I will be taken care of. Later the travel coordinator too was surprised that while most travelers had canceled their trip, I, a solo woman traveler, had stuck to mine, also told him that I felt that somehow my trip would be smooth, and to top it all, not a day sooner nor later, but the day I was scheduled to travel did the Manali-Kaza route open!!
In hindsight I feel this trip was meaningful to me at many different levels. Largely one of them was about looking fear in the eye and converting the same to love and trusting. At 3 am, in the middle of the night, I had to go to the taxi stand, that too with 2 heavy bags (I hate to carry luggage but love packing a lot of things!!) I had no choice but to ask the hotel manager to help me and accompany me. To be honest, I could feel the fear rising, but I took a deep breath, and sent out love towards the man and the situation and decided to just Trust. I was also apprehensive about who would sit next to me in a share taxi (next to the driver).  Even that was taken care of in the form of a lady Army officer who was traveling to Spiti with her boyfriend.

Entering Spiti
There were many opportunities for me to convert fear into love. On the treacherous roads where, an inch here or there would have sent us tumbling hundreds of feet below, I instinctively invoked the Spirits and guardians of the roads and adjoining mountains, sent them love, and knew I would be taken care of. When I had an opted for yak safari, I was told these were wild yaks and there were no stirrups or leash to hold on to. I patted the yak and gave it a lot of love, but somewhere on the way, the yak gave a shudder and the next thing I knew I was on the ground. Luckily I landed on my bum so damage was minimal! Instead of fearing the yak, I chose to love it and proceed.
The innocent yak which threw me off its back..
I was allotted a guide for 5 days. Spiti is sparsely populated and villages are situated with an hour or 2 (minimum) walking distance from each other. We trekked and traveled from one mountain to another with not another human soul in sight. But I felt no fear, nor did I even remotely feel threatened or uncomfortable with the guide. Altitude sickness hit me in a bad way and left me puking with a severe headache the day I landed in Kaza. Though these symptoms subsided after medication, one that persisted throughout my 16 day trip was sleeplessness. Oh my God, I’d never experienced insomnia and often boast that I can sleep anywhere, any place. Night after night, as I lay awake, in complete darkness and the eerie silence, listening to the amplified sound of my own heart beat, there were times I felt fearful and wished desperately that time should compress itself that the sun should rise soon. But I asked myself that if this is happening, how can I make the best of it? So I lay listening to my own breath and heart beat, sometimes chanting, sometimes carrying on imaginary conversations with the night fairies, and sometimes trying to read a book in torchlight! That is how I would spend 5-6 hrs each night!!. 

During these times as well as others, especially in the village I volunteered, time moved real slow. In Spiti, electricity is a luxury. In the 12 days I spend in Spiti, there was just one day when they had power, that too for a couple of hours. I was told that during winter, which lasts for 8 months under a blanket of snow, there is no electricity and now even during summer months, it had been a month since they had any. There is no phone connection in the villages and no running tap water. And strangely there is no concept of bathroom. Even during summer, the days were sunny but cold and nights were freezing. I was tempted to ask, when and where do people bathe, but refrained from doing so. Luckily in the home-stay I volunteered, there was a green house and I was asked to shower there. The toilets are dry compost.  That means no water to be used. I must say it did take a while getting used to coming out of the toilet without hearing the sound of the flush.
At Langza ....admiring the scenery

On that one day when there was electricity for some time, the TV was on and I was amused to see how all activity had stopped in the house and all members were staring at the screen with mouths open and wide-eyed. The TV was belting out some crass reality show with some cheap Bollywood music and slap-stick humor (sorry, I’m biased!!) And I remember thinking “Oh God! These pure innocent people are getting corrupt watching this”. But then that was their only source of entertainment and only connection to the outside world.
The people of Spiti deserve a special mention. One must go there to believe that such simple hearted people still exist on Earth. As I mentioned, on my first day in Kaza, I was severely ill with altitude sickness. I had puked 5 times and thought my head would explode. And there was no one to attend to me. But I decided to take one moment at a time and opened the door for some fresh air. And a man staying in the adjacent room asked me if I needed some help looking at my red face. He told the guest house owner who brought medicines for me. Though the guest house didn’t serve food, he still made some dal-rice because I was too ill to go out and eat. The food came but I couldn’t get myself to eat more than 2 morsels. When I was to check out 2 days later I asked him for the bill and noticed that he had not included the amount for dinner. I was surprised when he said that he had waived off that amount because I had not eaten more than 2 spoons. I insisted that I pay him but he just refused to tell me. I of course tipped him an approximate amount, but here was a man who had not taken into consideration the effort he had put in to cook a meal and whatever xyz costs business demands!!. Later I was to discover that all Spitians are too simple-hearted, almost unbelievably so. 
The lady who invited me for breakfast as I was simply passing by.

Wherever I went  people would greet me with a genuine smile and say ‘Julay’ (hello). From a group of little girls who invited me to join them when they realized I was traveling alone, to women who invited me to come and eat in their homes when I greeted them while passing by their homes, or several others (monks, nuns, shamans, medicine men) who took time out to meet me and talk to me, all of them won my heart.
I noticed that everybody in the villages knows everybody else. I saw children from other homes come and have tea or breakfast. Even when we went out to work on the fields the doors were never locked. Everywhere I went, be in homes or monasteries, I was welcomed with copious amounts of tea. I saw the lady of my home-stay carry extra tea and breakfast/lunch and give it to other villagers working in their fields on the way to her own. I thought to myself, that probably this is how life was meant to be lived on Earth. But somewhere down the way, we have terribly messed everything up.

Thursday 11 July 2013

Spiti: Travelogue- Part 2

My heart just went out to the kids in Spiti. They are so innocent and unspoilt, unlike city kids. Every where in Spiti, kids greet and smile, just like their elders and also wave out, especially if you are in a vehicle. They are extremely well-mannered and say ‘thank-you’ whenever they are given something. 
The lovely kids at Langza

By the second day, I too had caught the ‘waving bug’, and soon I was waving out gleefully to kids, toothless grannies, shepherds, cows, goats, sheep and bikers, and motorcyclists on Harley Davidsons and Royal Enfields. In Langza and I’m assuming in other villages too, kids return home from school at 4 pm, change over and go into the grazing pastures to fetch the cattle at sunset. Every day at Langza I accompanied my class 7 host, Tenzing, puffing and panting and pleading with him to go slow (it’s amazing to see how even little kids in Spiti go scampering in a jiffy over steep climbs) to the pastures. There Tenzing introduced me to his other classmates and friends. The kids asked me many questions….where I lived, why am I traveling alone, how it was in the cities…etc. There the kids would simply run behind lambs, chase goats, ride donkeys and do cart-wheels. Such simple pleasures of life. They had no access to toys or games like city kids, yet the fun they had was unmatched. Once I told them I wanted to take a picture with a cute little lamb. The boys chased the lamb for 10 minutes leaving me rolling with laughter on the grass. Whenever I distributed chocolates (Luckily I had carried a huge packet to give it to kids in the villages), they made sure that everyone in their group had received and that really touched my heart. I had also carried some coloring books and crayons. I had distributed some when some other tiny girls came accompanied with their mothers to my home-stay asking what book I had, since the girls I had give those to, had shown them off in their school and now even these kids wanted the same. I gave whatever I had and felt so bad since I didn’t have enough for all. I’m planning to send more books to their village school soon.
Another incident which moved me happened when I was traveling in a car. There was some work happening on the road and so the car slowed down. I looked out to see an old toothless granny with a flask of tea sitting on the side of the road, taking a break from the road work. When my eyes met hers, she gave me the most beautiful smile and asked me to come and join her for tea.  Here was a poor woman earning a daily wage and yet she was rich beyond measure to offer tea to a complete stranger like me. In that moment my heart expanded manifold. Each time I experienced the magnanimity of these gentle, peace loving people, my heart too expanded to accommodate more love and trust and also spread the same.
At a different level I also feel the entire trip had a magical quality about it. It’s needless to say that the very sight of the Himalayas is magical and fills you with an inexplicable sense of joy , calm and peace. The 1st night I spent in Kaza, it was 2 days away from Full moon and the snow peaked mountains reflected the moonlight.  The sight was magical beyond words. The next day I went to Langza for volunteering work and as soon as I was shown to my room, a sparrow sized orange breasted bird came and sat on the window sill and looked and me and happily chirped away as if to say “ are here?..welcome and now I’m off to work” and flew away..I again almost jumped with joy..:-)
Treasure from Langza

The next day morning I decided to explore the village. I met a lady working on a barley field. After chatting up with her, I sat down nearby to read a book on how the Earth was seeded and about early life on this planet. The same lady suddenly threw something in my direction. I didn’t understand what it was since it had camouflaged with the stones. She came up, picked it up and showed me…and lo behold I was holding an ammonite fossil in my hand. The sweet lady burst out laughing seeing me choke with joy..:-) She told me that it came with the snow melt irrigation water. I thanked her profusely for the same and decided that this would be the best gift for my husband. As I sat admiring my newly acquired ancient gift, I got greedy and decided to explore the village to see if I get more of these. Yes, after a lot of walking (and walking is tough at 14000 ft above sea level), I found another one slightly bigger and as a parting gift my hosts gave me 2 more of these. When I was in Demul and just sat watching the night sky , suddenly a light flashed across the sky. It could have been a shooting star but I’d like to think of it as a UFO J The night sky is so magical inSpiti. At such a high altitude, with no pollution whatsoever, it’s a feast for the eyes and soul to see over a million stars twinkle. It’s almost as if you can hear the music in their twinkling.
My guide Kunga Jorden
Since there is no mobile network in the villages, people carry messages on foot or shout from one mountain to another and seem to understand and hear each other perfectly. Their eyesight too seems to be amazingly sharp. My guide would point out to some far away mountain and say “see there are 3 tourists coming down from there”. And I would struggle to focus my vision in the direction he pointed in. Sometimes he would tell me that someone from far away was waving at me and when I failed to locate them, I would simply wave out in the direction he asked me to. Another funny thing I observed was that people there are obsessed with chewing gum. Right from children to nuns, to monks to toothless grannies and grandpas, everybody chewed gum and popped bubbles!!
One more strange experience I had was when I was trekking from Komic to Demul. I had left my yak and it was a down hill trek. Suddenly I began to feel very ill and within minutes it seemed as if my head and body would explode with pain. There were tears streaming down my cheeks and I was suddenly feeling very negative. Even I couldn’t understand what went so suddenly wrong. Anyways I reached my homestay, took a pain killer and rested for a while and I was ok. The next day I went to meet a Tibetan medicine man, just to understand what he does. Just to get him to talk more, I asked him to check my pulse. To my surprise he asked me if I had been very ill the previous day. When I replied in the affirmative, he said “Aap ke upar daayin aayi thi”….meaning some disembodied entity had latched on to my aura. He said I was fine now but weak and that I should rest a lot. I was surprised how he had felt the energy change I had experienced just by feeling my pulse.

The Amchi at Demul
The last leg of my trip was a true adventure, so to speak. We left from Kaza at 6.30 am for Manali. At 12.45 pm, we joined a long line of stationary tempos, taxis, trucks and buses only to find out that a truck coming from the opposite direction had got stuck between a partially collapsed road and a rock jutting out from the mountain. There were 2 other girls in the share taxi from Czech Republic who were with their boyfriends. They waited for 2 hours and realizing that the situation wouldn’t improve decided to hike it out. Now I was the only woman in the taxi. As time passed I saw that the other men/boys in my vehicle as well in the front were walking it down to the next closest sign of habitation, a tea stall, a good 12 kms away. Still I felt no fear or panic. Now it was nearing  4 pm and my taxi driver was getting too chatty for comfort . That is when I realized I must do something to get out of there. I started by walking down behind as well as in the front peeping into every vehicle to see if there was any other woman. 2 vehicles ahead of me there was a lady but she was just beginning to unload her luggage to hike it out with her husband. I reminded myself not to panic and that the Spirits of the Himalayas would take care of me. I walked down further and was glad to see a woman in her taxi. I told her that I was the only woman behind and that I wanted the company of another woman to decide what can be done. She was an Israeli and assured me that she wouldn’t leave because she was too ill to walk it down. She was truly God-sent. She had her boy-friend for company and said that they would be with me. At around 5 pm, her taxi driver said that he has arranged for a taxi which was coming from Manali and which would pick us up from the other side of the stranded truck. It still meant walking down a good half hour with heavy luggage and that too over a waterfall. The same driver who was annoying me earlier offered to help me with my luggage and also helped me walk through the water fall. God bless him. As we passed the other vehicles I noticed that we two were the only women around and the rest were all drivers. The water was so cold that we had walked ten minutes on it and our feet were numb. Finally at 6.30 pm our taxi arrived and we reached Manali, fully exhausted at 10.30 pm.
Bonding after getting stranded.
I also met a lot of interesting people on this trip. From a couple of girls from UK who were traveling to Spiti after having volunteered to teach English in a rural Gujarat school for 8 months, to 2 men, aged 52 and 65 yrs, who had given up their jobs 9 and 16 yrs respectively to pursue their passion for travel and photography, to my new Israeli friends who had been around India much more than I have (including some places I didn’t know existed), I listened in awe as they narrated tales from their travel to different places. I also heard about other travelers from a solo traveler who had decided not to earn for a living in 2004, and who since then has been trekking and traveling in the Himalayas continuously. He spoke of a Swiss man who travels overland in his camping car from Switzerland to Goa and also takes other travelers with him for a fee, a group of travelers who do the length and breadth of any country only by train, without stopping in any city, a solo cyclist from Mumbai who has toured Asia and Europe on his cycle and many more fascinating tales!!.
So as I had set out to explore joy, love, infinite potential in the matrix, so I did find them and much more. I discovered magic in every moment only when I let go and trusted. And very objectively I can say I scored pretty well on this trip:-) It was truly fulfilling in all ways. And I'm ever grateful to the Nature Spirits for giving me this experience.   
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