Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Dayara Bugyal and Rishikesh: Snow trekking, river rafting, and a happy new year

"Vaaaaaiiiiissshhhhnavvvviiiiiiiiiiii", I shouted. My voice echoed in the quiet mountains. We heard no response from her. The others told me she must be right behind. We wondered how much more time we had left. It was beginning to get dark and we had to get back before it was too late. Yet, there we were. A bunch of enthusiasts on the verge of giving up. And give up we did. Our first attempt to get to Dayara Bugyal had failed.

I don't remember a time when I was not with my friend Nikhil Bangera on new year's eve. December 2014 was no different. Except that this time, there were 12 other people with us - 6 of whom were unknown to me. 

It all started when I left Sanpada an hour before my train to Haridwar was scheduled to depart from Lokmanya Tilak Terminus in Mumbai. Luck and me never got along too well but this was a bad day for vengeance. Crossing all boundaries of ruthlessness, she caused trains in the harbour line to run 30 minutes late. By the time I got a train and reached LTT, it was 5 minutes past departure time. I still ran as fast as I could with my heavy bag. A young lad approached me as I was a few feet away from my platform. "Haridwar Express ? It's already gone", he said. Disheartened, my speed reduced and I came to a slow halt panting and out of breath. That's when I got a call from Kedar saying, "Where the hell are you? The train has started moving!". I started running again and after a few seconds I could see the train. By the time I reached, I was on one end of the platform and the train on the other. I missed it. I hated myself for believing the guy on my way. I turned back and there he was again. "Don't worry Sir. I will drop you at Igatpuri, the next stop. Just Rs.4000." The weasel  had purposely lied to me so that I'd miss my train and he would make money off of me. I was pissed and went berserk at the station. I even gathered a couple of cops but the guy ran away before they got to me. After a couple of discussions with Ankur over the phone about taking another train to get to Karjat, I finally concluded that the only way to catch the train was indeed to take a cab to Igatpuri. I negotiated with another cabbie who settled for Rs. 2300 and three hours later, I was at Igatpuri station barely 5 minutes before the train got there. 

I knew almost everybody in the group waiting for me in the train except one girl. She wore glasses and quietly listened to my entire anecdote clubbed with my histrionics. She was then introduced to me as Sharanya, my friend Nikhil's classmate from APU. Nikhil's other friends from the Azim Premji University were to join us in Uttarakhand. I was meeting my buddies Swapna and Rakesh after a long time so we had loads to catch up. Ankur was an old friend too and I had met Arun in our Dapoli and Dharwad bike trips earlier that year. From there on, the whole gang got along quite well and the entire train ride was fun. I happened to hit it off with Sharanya who turned out to be as fun and friendly as Nikhil himself.

A day and a few selfies at random stations later, we reached Haridwar in freezing cold weather. We booked rooms to stay the night, enjoyed some cheese dosas and sandwiches at a local restaurant (dosa plaza) and took off for Uttarkashi the next day. This is where I first met the rest of the APU gang. Sridhar, the most enthusiastic, energetic, brilliant and yet modest guy you will ever meet, was one of the highlights of the trip. He truly always kept the spirits high. Lavanya, Vaishnavi, and Ishwarya seemed to be close friends. While Ishwarya was very sweet and easy to talk to, and Lavanya a delight to interact with, I felt from the very beginning that this girl Vaishnavi hated me. And I had no clue why! 

Nevertheless, we all got to know each other in the flat we were to stay. It belonged to an alumnus (Kapil) of APU who had kindly volunteered to help us out. Mayuri who joined us a bit later gelled well with the gang and became an important character in the story to follow. So there we were - 14 of us in one big house in the coldest weather I had endured in a long, long time. We sat on the matted floor with some extra cushioning provided by our jackets, poured our drinks in plastic glasses, and chatted away till we were extremely tired (or cold). One of the rooms had a heater and our survival instincts forced us to fight for a spot in this room abandoning all kinds of courteous behavior. As it turned out, almost 10 of us slept in the room with the heater ON and the remaining few slept in the adjacent room covered in woolen rugs!

Next morning, we took a short trip which put to shame all one-day trips I had ever taken! After early morning tea by the roadside, a little van took us through hilly roads and spectacular views of snow-clad mountains to our destination - Gangotri. From the spot where we parked to the temple was a walk on slippery, hardened snow and a little bit of crushed ice. After the customary snow ball fight and putting snow in each other's shirts, we walked up to the temple. While the temple was shut, the whole place was mesmerizing with the river flowing next to it and no soul present there but us. 

We went up to the rocks near the river, each one occupying a rock for himself, and clicked a lot of pictures against the backdrop of the river and the snow-clad mountains. An agglomeration of white snow, brown rocks, the bluish green river and our multi-colored clothes made for a picturesque setting. I would not be exaggerating if I say - it felt like a dream!

Rakesh had promised me a portfolio, most of which was shot at this location. After several attempts, Sharanya finally got one picture of kicking the snow right! We then got together for a group picture, and finally, reluctantly, went back to our van which drove us back to base.

The drive to the base of Dayara Bugyal was not a very long one - just around 90 minutes. But the thing with mountain roads is, even short distances make you very tired. By the time we reached, it was dark and we were starving. Mercifully, our kind hosts at the Dayara Bugyal resort at Barsu greeted us with hot tea and some scrumptious dinner.

The dorm we were staying in was the most perfect setting a group like ours could have asked for. It was a huge room with around 14 beds, which were really cold to climb into but warmed up with time. We all stuck close to each other under our rugs (yeah, very funny!) and chatted away in the dark mostly making fun of Sharanya's desperately sexy tone of voice and hilarious, scooterish laughter (which was quite adorable actually, but we never told her that!). This fun and frolic in the middle of a cold night in a beautiful, far-off destination with people I hadn't even met till a few days ago happens to be the most fascinating and cherish-able memory of this trip for me!

Finally, it was the day of the trek we were all here for! After a little commotion to use the bathroom in the morning, we were all ready to leave pretty early. Those who were ready to leave before the others made good use of their time clicking pictures in the early sun. We decided that we will go forth without a guide as we were all experienced trekkers and we had it in us to find our own way. It took almost a day, several explored routes, a couple of half-way drop outs and loss of sunlight to prove us wrong. We were fine till we could see a little trail but once the mountains decided to screw us, we had no choice. Mayuri had to return mid-way and Kedar, being the gentleman that he is, decided to accompany her. The kid was quite quick. He actually managed to escort her back to the base and join us back way sooner than we thought he could. Meanwhile, another group of people including Vaaaisshhnavi and Lavanya were falling back a bit. We were also out of water so Swapna, Sharanya, Nikhil and Shridhar went looking for some and an alternate route to reach the Bugyal. Meanwhile, Rakesh, Ishwarya, Kedar and me just sat amidst the trees watching the light fade slowly. I thought it was worth checking if the girls were catching up. That's when I shouted out a name I was made to rehearse over the past couple of days - "Vaaaaiiissshhhnnnaaavvvviiiii".

A few minutes later, we all got together and realized that it was a lost cause and it was time to head back and try again the next day. We started our descent like wounded tigers who will strike back with a vengeance. Except that I was literally wounded. As I climbed down, I realized that my knee was hurting terribly. The pain grew with every passing minute. By the time we reached our base, the pain was so excruciating that I began to give up all hope of going for the trek the next day.

Nikhil, Swapna and Rakesh advised me to apply some Relispray on my knee and cover it to keep it warm. I did not listen to them simply because I was too lazy to take off the hundreds of layers of clothes I was wearing to protect myself from the cold. We spent the night in the dorm with 14 people chatting away (again), narrating anecdotes, laughing aloud at the day's events. We even cooked up a story to pull a practical joke on Mayuri who had missed the day's proceedings.  However, we pushed it too far by introducing characters like disappearing blue men and polar bears! Covered in rugs and laughing out loud as we battled the cold, the day came to an end.

Once again, day 2 started early. Some decided to give the trek a miss. I was unable to take a call on whether I should go ahead as my knee was still hurting and it was an all-day trek. Like so many other times in life, I looked towards Nikhil for advice. He said that I should give it a shot as this trek was the whole point of the trip. I could return whenever I felt it was getting too much. This was just what I wanted to hear. I put on some Relispray, covered my knee with a tight crape bandage, wore my track pants, and then my jeans over it to keep it warm. We were all ready to embark on our adventure once again - only this time, we were wise enough to go with a guide. As we started, we saw that the guide took us from a route which ran along the route we took the previous day for the first 20 steps. And then, it turned left towards a concrete route of stairs. It was right there - a clear, obvious, concrete, guiding trail towards Dayara Bugyal. It turned out that we had started wrong the previous day and continued on a wrong track altogether! 

This time round, we just followed the guide as he took us through the stairs, leading to a shaded rocky terrain amidst green hills followed by loads of hard, slippery snow (which I peed on writing my name in yellow :P) and finally the last but vast stretch of snow that we had to climb sinking our feet into the snow. My 4K Quechua shoes that I had bought especially for this trek were proving to be a worthy buy. After trekking through loads of snow, we reached the frozen Barsu lake which was our first (and my only) achievement.

The Dayara Bugyal was another couple of hours from there and we had to be real quick if we wanted to touch it and get back to base before it was too dark. I decided not to go any further as it would mean that I would slow down the entire group. At least that's what I told them (didn't want Swapna and Sharanya to think I was weak :P)

Rakesh and Kedar stayed back with me at the lake where we built a fire (mostly them actually, I just lied down on account of my injured knee, looking at the lake, enjoying the ambiance) after collecting dry twigs from all around. It was just amazing. At such a height, far away from our daily life - the wide, vast expanse of mountains, snow, greenery, the lake - all in symphony - it was nature at its best! And so quiet! Kedar stepped on the edge of the frozen lake very carefully and clicked a few pics there. Rakesh strolled around the place before he came down and sat next to the fire. As I lied down on the grass hearing my own breath, absorbing every bit of the peace and quiet this place offered, I did not realize when I dozed off.

A few minutes later with no sign of Nikhil, Swapna, Shridhar, and Sharanya, we thought we should get going as we would need a head start anyway (due to my knee). On our way back, we met a couple from Delhi who was on a short vacation (cool place to camp with your girlfriend I thought) and two other guys from Kolkata one of whom we had met near the lake. They had found and returned a camera lens cover which one of us had lost. Happy coincidence! As we trudged along, we kept calling out once in a while to check if the others were somewhere nearby. An hour later, they answered our call and we were reunited. The rest of the climb down was all happy and with the contentment of having completed the trek.

We got back to Uttarkashi and booked a couple of hotel rooms. Sharanya, Nikhil and me packed some food for everyone and while we all ate and drank merrily, the clock struck 12! It was January 1, 2015. We all hugged (no kissing in India) wishing each other a happy new year!

The next day was meant to be a relaxing one but we ended up going on another little trek to a lake. Swapna got scolded by a sadhu at the lake for stepping where she shouldn't have. I continued posing for pics in the snow to add to my portfolio. Sharanya, as usual, couldn't figure out a way to tie her laces in a way that they wont come undone every 5 minutes. Later, I hypothesized that this was just her way to find a reason to stretch so all the guys would notice her!

After a long discussion about our future course of action the next morning, 7 of us left for our final stop - Rishikesh. We decided to go for an overnight camp and experience the famous white-water rafting at Rishikesh. Unfortunately, Sharanya was to leave us to resume work in her school in the village of Bhor where she was a teacher. After some local breakfast and handing over some cheap presents I had promised her, Sharanya bid goodbye to us.  We carried on to the forest camp which we reached in the dark. Arrangements were made for our stay n tents and dinner and a bonfire. We ate and drank for the better part of the night and crashed in our tents after a few selfies. 

Next morning was when we could actually see what a beautiful place we were at. The river was right in front of us (had to cross a few rocks though) and we had trees all around us. It was the perfect forest camp set up. A couple of hours after we soaked up the morning ambiance, we packed our bags and left to be taken to the starting point of the rafting. 

Few minutes later, we were in our boat with our instructor shouting "Forward"! We had experience rafting at kolad but this was a different ball game altogether. the rapids were way stronger and for the portion I was sitting at the front, what I witnessed cannot be explained in words. 

Battling through the rapids in such fashion got me all excited about taking a kayaking course in the future! Jumping from a little cliff into the freezing water was a part of this experience. Each one of us ended up doing it thrice. After we ended the ride, we dried ourselves and changed in the adventure company's office. That was it. It was the end of our new year trip!

We left for Delhi where we bid goodbye to Sridhar with a heavy heart. He was to leave for Madhya Pradesh where he taught in a rural area. The rest of us got into our train for Mumbai and came back to our routine lives.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Tadoba trip 2012: 8 wild tigers in one day

When you plan to go on your first wildlife safari, you expect it to be an adventurous trip. My adventure began much before I was anywhere close to the forest. It was summer in 2012 when a bunch of us planned a trip to the Tadoba tiger reserve. It involved a train journey from Mumbai to Chandrapur for which we had booked 3-tier AC tickets. All were in the Waiting List and none got confirmed by the date of travel. Fortunately, we had 2 confirmed Sleeper class tickets but there were 6 of us. We were wondering what to do with the train ready to leave the platform when our adventure began.

Nikhil was at the ticket counter trying to buy wait-listed Sleeper Class tickets but right then, the whistle blew and the train was about to leave. We called Nikhil and asked him to hurry up as the train started moving. Nikhil took back the money from the teller and ran towards the train. The moment Nikhil was in sight, the rest of us started getting into the train and in true DDLJ style, we pulled Nikhil in at the last minute. All 6 of us were in the sleeper class of the train now with 2 confirmed tickets. We just hung around waiting for the TC. When he showed up, we explained the situation to him and paid the fine hoping for some seats to be available at some point during the journey (due to last-minute no shows).

The train was packed and there was no scope for any free seats. This was to be an 18-hour journey and it was the sleeper class of a train during the hot summer. We were trying to tackle this situation by trying to cheer each other up when a gentleman in the next berth took pity on us and offered us one of his seats while he managed in one seat with his children. Thanks to him going through this trouble for us, we now had 3 seats between 6 of us. We were to bunk in groups of 2 so it was Nikhil and Shreerang, Rukshana and Swapna and as usual - Rakesh and me! While this was still quite uncomfortable, it made the overnight journey bearable.
The gentleman in question here was Mustafa Bhai. He gave up his seat for us inconveniencing his wife and kids because he believed in helping others whenever God offered him an opportunity to do so. His mom had been to Karbala (Iraq!) and he had gone to Mumbai with his wife and kids to receive her up after the long pilgrimage. Not only did he help us during the journey, he also arranged for our transport from Chandrapur station to Tadoba. It was touching to watch his brother receiving them at the station, kissing his Mom's hand with teary eyes. The pilgrimage meant a lot for all of them and they were all really happy to see her. We were then picked up by Zakir in his Sumo, he helped us arrange for a Safari jeep at Moharli and also waited back till it was clear that we were getting a jeep.

We booked the two available rooms at the MTDC resort as soon as they were available online. However, we were in for a bigger problem when we reached the entrance of the forest. It turned out that we had to book the safari in advance and get permits for the safari. We had done none of this and were in a fix when Shreerang became our knight in shining armour. Like we see in movies, the guy made one phone call and a minute later, the gates were being opened for us. All through our drive till the resort, Shreerang had been showing us posters of a man he knew. While we didn't pay much heed to his boastfulness, it turned out that it was Shreerang's association with the influential man in the posters that helped us get our names on the VIP quota list. The VIP quota extended to arrangement of a safari jeep. Problem solved and we started the Safari at 3PM.

A paper bag was given to each jeep entering Tadoba-Andhari with some instruction imprinted on it. I was told that we have to be very lucky to spot a tiger in a safari and there have been times when people have returned without seeing a tiger.

As I kept waiting anxiously through the drive in the forest, a heard a voice saying "There!". The first tiger we saw was lying between bamboo bushes and the view wasn't too clear. We moved on hoping to see more when we got our second sighting - Three male cubs just lying around, having fun!
I was excited as this was the first time I was seeing a tiger in the forest. I had often read that if you really want to witness the might of the tiger, you should see in the wild and not in a zoo. And here I was, watching tigers in their natural habitat. Their stripes looked much brighter than they look in movies and videos. They were at a distance and were not moving much so I was a bit disappointed. I said to myself, "Is that it? What's so great about that?". Well, that changed in a few minutes.

Our third sighting was a tigress with her 3 cubs! This was right next to a small, artificial water body in the forest. The cubs were too shy to come out of the woodwork but we could see a bit of them before they ran in. The tigress came out though. It circled the waterhole, leaned gracefully and drank some water.

This was cool, I was now getting a much better view of the tigress and actually felt like I am watching her do something natural in her natural habitat. Right then, the tigress looked towards our jeeps and started walking towards us. There were two jeeps with around 12 people in all. The little little chitter-chatter turned into pin drop silence as we saw the tigress come towards us. She walked truly like she owned the road, the jungle, and each one of us! The photographers kept clicking and the spectators kept watching with open mouths while she nonchalantly crossed the road just ahead of us and disappeared in the forest to our left. For the rest of the ride, I kept looking behind me with high levels of alertness.

We then stopped at the Tadoba lake where we saw more wildlife than in the rest of the safari. We saw some crocodiles too. We were told that the crocs here had eaten up a wild boar the previous day. We also saw a decaying corpse of deer close to the water that had a cut off leg. The guide said that it had probably been attacked by these crocodiles. Without a leg, it couldn't survive long.

This brought us to the end of our extremely fruitful safari. The VIP quota was for just one day and we couldn't go on a morning Safari the next day. So we stayed up till 5AM playing Uno and Uno bluff (a game invented on the fly). The next morning, after a late breakfast, we were off to Chandrapur in Zakir's car. In Chandrapur our first stop was Mustafa bhai's house. We were received very warmly. We had discussions about several things and were treated with some delicious kheer. The lady in the middle with the neck cast is his mom.
We were then given a quick tour of the city by Mustafa bhai's brother, Mohammad Bhai. We saw the Anchaleshwar temple. He took us to a sweet shop and then to Sanjay lassi center, where we were all forced to have some wonderful lassi. Meanwhile Mustafa bhai was at the railway station trying to book our tickets!

We had 5 confirmed tickets for the return journey. The sixth person had to pay a fine. This was a lot better for everyone else other than Rakesh and me because as expected, we were to bunk on one berth again!

Awesome pictures and valuable inputs by Nikhil Bangera.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Remembering my first Goa trip

I was quite boring and geeky as a kid. Teenage was no different ; I wasn't an outgoing guy at all. I hardly even stepped out to watch a movie with friends.  School life for me was all about going to school, coming back, getting my homework done, playing for a bit in the courtyard, and going off to sleep. It was in Fr. Agnel Junior college because of my friends Bunty and Jeetu that I had started learning stuff about the outside world which I was pretty alien to. It was during these two years that I went for a movie with a huge group of friends (including girls) for the first time, I heard about the famous sitcom FRIENDS for the first time, I fell in love for the first time (unrequited of course), and did many other things for the first time. It is safe to say that it was here that I developed a thirst to live life, to explore what else there is to life other than the stuff i know of, and above all - it was here that I began realizing that I was interested in the performing arts. Anyway, Junior college passed by and before I knew it, I had taken some acting classes and started my journey as an actor. However, with my background, it seemed impossible to rely on acting as a career so I took up Engineering. And this started a whole new phase of my life, a phase which perhaps taught me more than any other time period.

After my initial stints with ragging, new hot girls in college, new friends, and a syllabus that I was hating to begin with - I cleared my first year without much of a problem. And then in my second year, a bunch of guys were planning a college trip to Goa. Goa, the place I had heard of so much, had seen in so many films.. a place that brought to mind a lot of glamour, fun, mystery.. for my first big outdoor trip with a bunch of people my age, it sounded perfect and yet made me nervous. I got my Dad's permission from home and enrolled for it. I had just bought a new cell phone - a Sony Ericsson W550I phone (the Walkman series) using the money I made by working at call centres during my vacations. I thought the camera in my new phone would come in handy for this trip. As anxious as I was, I got some assurance from the fact that my best friends Rakesh, Venky, Sneha, Darpan and Megha were with me on this trip. So without any further hesitation, I got into the bus with around 50 other colleagues and my first Goa trip was underway. It was the year 2005.

We were staying at a hotel in Calangute and from what I can remember, we were the only ones there. The first thing to do was to rent bikes from Panaji which was a few kilometres away from Calangute. So, off we went to get our mean machines. Now, not all bikes you rent in Goa come in great condition. Some of them often have issues with lights, brakes, seats, etc. So when we looked at the bikes available, who gets which bike was a major choice to be made. There was one bike which was in excellent condition, one which was fine but needed caution and one that was an absolute gamble as it had no electric start, tricky (moody) lights and not the best brakes. We decided that since Venky and Darpan were with girls, they will get the best bikes. That's right. Even back then, guys without girls were considered losers and were given least priority. Also, Rakesh was the best rider amongst us and I was to go pillion with him. So, we figured we two will get the shitty bike and the other two will get the better ones. Once the bikes were sorted, we went back to Calangute to get the girls and our beach safari began.

The next couple of days was the regular Goa routine almost all tourists go through. We visited the major North Goa beaches - Baga, Vagator, Aguada but we did not go up to Arambol as we thought it was too much of a ride then. We ate some delicious food at some awesome shacks.It was the first time I was seeing so many foreigners around me. It was also the first time I was seeing so much skin! Hot girls in bikins, shorts, wet t-shirts... it was like a teenage (or in my case, a little older) boy's paradise. We went to club Mambo paying around 700 bucks per head which I was opposed to because I thought it was steep. However, when some random foreign chicks came and started dancing with Rakesh and me, I forgot all about the money. They were smiling at us and we were all dancing really close to each other, a new experience and a great high for me. This is when stupid Rakesh decided to drive them off by trying to flaunt his wanna-be MJ moves which they couldn't keep up with. They were so cool and satisfied with the silly little steps we were doing.. but NO.. Mr. MJ had to show them what he got. Strangely, now when we try to recollect what happened that day, Rakesh says I was the one flaunting the MJ moves that drove the girls away. I don't believe him though and I am going to be mad at him for this all my life! Anyway, so much was happening and we were all having the time of our lives without knowing that in the next two days, hell was going to break loose.

The next morning, the plan was to take off for Palolem in South Goa. Everyone was super excited about this long ride (nobody knew exactly how long it would take but we estimated around 3 hours). What followed were the most shocking, adventurous, mad and panic-filled two days of our lives. It so happened that while riding to Palolem, one of our friends met with a bike accident. All bikes were riding within short distances of each other so all of us riding behind him took notice of this accident and stopped. We got off our bikes and we couldn't believe our eyes when we saw him. Our friend's bike was lying flat at the side with a few drops of blood leading to where he was lying in pain. He had injured his knee and when we looked at it, we could see his bone through the skin. He was bleeding and crying in pain. Venky and a couple of other guys arranged for an ambulance  but before the ambulance could get there, the cops paid a visit. Some guys tried to convince the cops to put our friend in their jeep and take him to a hospital nearby but they refused to do so saying that it was too risky for anyone other than hospital guys to handle our friend. The ambulance got there in a bit and our friend was rushed to a hospital located somewhere mid-way between Calangute and Palolem. Venky went in the ambulance and I was supposed to ride Sneha to the hospital on Venky's bike. After we reached the hospital, I was to take the same bike and head to Palolem with some others to get some people from there to the hospital. I reached Palolem but seeing the beach didn't even cross my mind. I met my friend Ankita (whose boyfriend and now husband Akash was also at the hospital) and brought her along on my bike to the hospital. Once we got the news that our injured friend was conscious and doing better, everyone relaxed a bit. However, some guys had to stay while the girls had to be taken back to Calangute so once again, driver Dilip was on duty. Sneha and me took Venky's bike key and rode from the hospital towards Calangute with me riding as carefully and slowly as I possibly could. We took a little break somewhere near Margao when the next strange thing happened.

Our friend Manan was really upset after the accident but not just because of our injured friend. Amidst all this chaos, he had lost his bike and had no clue where it was. He assumed that someone left it at the accident spot while he rushed to the hospital in the ambulance. As he described every detail of his bike one by one to me, it turned out that the bike I was riding with Sneha behind me is actually Manan's bike. He was so relieved on seeiing his bike that he forgot all about the accident for a bit. It brought a huge smile to his face. However, this terrified me to the core. If the bike I was riding was Manan's bike, where the hell was Venky's bike?? We all got back to Calangute and when Venky showed up after a few hours, I was just too scared to bring this up with him. However, it had to be done. I told him about this confusion and after ridiculing my absence of mind for a while, we all put our heads together to figure out what must have happened. Clearly, all these Pulsars that we were riding did not have unique keys. Venky had given me his bike key at the hospital to get back to Calangute with Sneha. I had unknowingly used the key to start up a similar looking Pulsar that belonged to Manan. This meant that Venky's bike would still be parked at the hospital. The problem was - our injured friend was no longer at that hospital. He was moved to a better hospital in South Goa closer to Palolem where he was waiting for his parents who were called for. So we were to take a useless trip to that hospital just to look for this bike. Nevertheless, we had to go and thankfully, we were given a ride by a friend of ours who had rented a car. This was a nervous trip with everyone thinking about the possible consequences of not finding the bike there. Venky had already made back-up plans to book a flight and get back to Mumbai to escape the fury of the bike rental guys. I was full of guilt because I felt it was all my fault as I did not check if I am getting on the right bike. But in my defense, why would I find anything suspicious about a bike which started with a key I had?!? Drenched in these thoughts, we reached the hospital and heaved a huge sigh of relief when we saw Venky's bike still standing there.. all alone.  We then put all this behind us and got back to our hotel for a good night's sleep. 

The next day was our last day of the Goa trip and the day God tested my patience with my friend Rakesh. In the afternoon, we took a ride on our shitty bike to Palolem. We wanted to see the beach since we had come so close the last time. And to our surprise, it was the best beach we had seen in Goa. The long stretch of sand, the palm trees, the beautiful girls (more beautiful than the ones at all the other beaches), and to top it all - two rainbows formed one above the other on the vast sky. We took a walk from one corner to the other.. not a gay one mind you! We were checking out chicks all the time. We clicked a few pictures of the lovely beach and the magnificent rainbows, felt the cool evening breeze, saw the horizon and kept looking till we lost the sun.Then, with a heavy heart, we had to leave. On our way back, we took a ride to the hospital to visit our friend. And of all the places in the world, it was here that Rakesh decided to get drunk! Our sports secretary Kaveesh and general secretary Vivek were there too with some other friends of ours. Rakesh suddenly started feeling an emotional bond towards all of them and he expressed this by shouting out loud in the hospital premises. As expected, someone complained and he had to be taken away. Now, being Rakesh's bike partner, Kaveesh gave me the responsibility of riding Rakesh back to Calangute. The problem with this was - thorughout the trip, I was riding behind other bikes. I was a new rider myself and not a very confident one. Add to this the fear of riding at night in a city I don't know on my first real outdoor trip. I had no idea what the riding route was and a drunk Rakesh was more of a liability than a help. And above all this - our bike had problems which only Rakesh, being the pro-rider, could handle. I protested but to no use. Finally, with a drunk Rakesh behind me and an assurance from Kaveesh that everything will be fine, I kick started our bike and took off from the hospital.

After the first few minutes, I wanted to ask someone for directions because the last thing  wanted was to take a detour. I saw a guy walking towards us at a distance and moved the bike closer to him so that I could ask for his help. Just when I was about 5 feet away from him, Rakesh spotted him and shouted loudly "Iss chutiye ko pooch.. iss chutiye ko pooch" (Ask this dick-head).The alcohol had flushed away Rakesh's sense of distance, sound, morality, and the fear of getting beaten up! He did not realize that the guy was standing right ahead of us and can hear even our breath. It was too late. The guy had already heard him so stopping there would mean a death warrant. I just slowed down the bike and quickly yelled "Calangute?" and he impulsively pointed towards the right direction. Before the guy could process anything else that happened, I raced off as far away from him as possible. After that close shave, it was smooth sailing for the next 20 minutes or so except for Rakesh who kept irritating me by asking me if he should take over and me asking him to stop moving so much or the bike will lose balance. The first time I couldn't apply the brakes when I saw a bunch of rumblers, Rakesh pointed out from behind in his drunkard voice - "Dude, when you see those, you need to press the brakes". I thanked him for this valuable advice and kept moving. From there on, every time I did manage to apply the brakes, he complemented me saying "Good breaking man... good breaking!". We were riding through a hilly patch with no street lights when our bike lights decided to stop working. It scared the shit out of me and I thought I will be hit by a speeding vehicle anytime now. It took me a couple of minutes to figure out a way out of this situation. I started following a vehicle whose speed I could match. I used its tail lights as my headlights. I followed and followed and followed till we reached a part of the city where there were enough lights and as luck would have it, this is exactly when our bike lights started functioning properly too. And after this, I reached a part of Goa which I did not know existed. I was riding for almost ten minutes with no vehicle behind or ahead of me. All shops were closed, all houses were shut. The only thing I could see was a graveyard every now and then. I began to worry if I had taken a detour. It just felt impossible that Goa could be this quiet and this scary. To add to my fear, Rakesh, (who despite being drunk, was my security) had to say this - "Dude, for the first time in my life, I am really scared..."

Another five minutes down this road and I was sure something was wrong. I considered taking a U-turn but feared going through the route of last ten minutes again. I stopped the bike and Rakesh got off. All we could hear around were crickets. For as far as we could see, there was not a single living soul. Once again, I saw a big cross structure at the corner and a graveyard next to it. I was just about to pee in my pants when I heard a sound. It was the sound of an approaching vehicle. I was relieved because it meant I can ask for directions and more importantly, it meant that I was not alone on this route. The car drove up towards us and stopped right in front of our bike. Behind the car were four bikes one after the other. it was our friend Sameer and another bunch of guys from our college who were heading back to Calangute. I don't clearly remember but I think I teared up a bit. After this, I joined the group of bikers and followed the car right till Calangute. The irony is - by the time we reached Calangute, Rakesh was all sober and talking sense again. What stunned me was that he behaved like nothing had happened. We slept off and laughed out loud remembering this whole thing the next day.

It was time to leave and everyone was happy that nothing worse had happened. Our bus took off from Panaji and stopped a couple of hours later for dinner. And just as we were all looking back at this trip as a good roller-coaster ride where everyone had their share of fun, I got my final blow. We left the hotel where we were eating and when we got into the bus, I realized that i had lost my cell phone. The whole college gang looked for it everywhere we possibly could, we checked the hotel staff and waiters, but it was too late. I was sad for a bit but today when I look back at the trip, I realize that me losing my cell phone was just one episode of a marvelous series that was - My first trip to Goa.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Roadhouse hostel - the ideal abode in Goa for true-blue backpackers

A man named Deepak dropped me on his bike from Panaji to German Bakery in Anjuna for Rs. 350. This kind of a transporter is called a 'pilot' in Goa. Right next to the German Bakery was Roadhouse - the hostel I had read about just a week ago on Facebook. With a smartly managed FB page, the content had succeeded in making the hostel my choice for a short 3-day stay in Goa. The place turned out to be good enough for me to call in sick at work and extend my stay by a couple of days.

I was greeted by a cat resting on a bean bag just outside the entrance and a picture of Jim Morrison on the wall to the right of the reception table. A man wearing shorts, a shirt and spectacles welcomed me asking me my name. I gave it to him and learnt that he was Uday, the person I have been speaking with over the phone. Fortunately, despite my online booking not working out, there was exactly one bed available and it turned out I was just on time. He asked me to wait for a bit while my bed was cleared. I relaxed in the lobby listening to music and a few minutes later, Nelson the manager of the hostel informed me that my bed was ready and Raj, the helper will escort me.

The hostel room was as I had imagined it to be. 6 beds with clothes, towels, mobile chargers, books lying around and yet not shabby or stinky. Shashank from Bangalore was the only one there getting ready to leave for the Hilltop festival. The bathroom was clean and spacious and contrary to my pre-conceived notion, did not smell bad at all. 

A few minutes later after I got myself acquainted with the place, I met Ben from Australia, Benny from Germany and Marshall from Canada – my other roomies. I had a quick shower and went back to the reception where Uday told me about Mango shade – a really cool, inexpensive restaurant right next to the hostel. I walked up to this place and saw around 8 travelers from my hostel sitting together at a table. There wasn’t any space there so I was reluctant to join them. A quiet meal and a few hours later, I was friends with all of them.

The hostel front yard had bean bags where people chilled with pints of beer when they had nothing else to do. This is also where most people from the hostel met each other for the first time. Here is where I met Rose from Australia, Judith from Hungary, Natalie and Elsa from Luxemberg, Sjouna from New York, Kat and Taz from England, Kunal from Delhi, Mr. Tonston from Germany, Dove and Zaza from France, Vishnu from Mangalore, Santosh from Hyderabad, Tim, Will, and Charlie from Manchester, and Hannah and Elaine from Sweden. 

I wanted to rent a geared motorbike but there was none available due to the busy Goa carnival. Nelson helped to get me a scooter which was my ride for the next 4 days. Uday, who is like an encyclopedia on Goa and things to do here, came up with several activities for everyone staying at the hostel in the days to come. It started with all of us taking a ride to the Arpora night market which was a night full of drinking, dancing and a whole lot of fun. The next day was a beer war between hostels in the vicinity at Heidi’s beer garden. The war included hogging a hotdog full of chillies, chugging beer, and identifying types of beer. The night concluded with the whole group meeting at Curlies for dinner and then dancing till the wee hours of the morning. Then came the Goa carnival which also included triple seat rides to Mapusa and then to Vagator for the sunset followed by a snack on the beach and a huge meal back at German Bakery with an entertaining Mumbai Vs Delhi war between Kunal and me. Amidst all this, there were notes being exchanged between the travelers on their countries, cultures, travel plans and much more. Also, each one of us often took off on our own to explore Goa and met later at night to tell our tales of the day. I will never forget Rose's magnificent dance moves and exceptional bag packing skills.. and Hannah's unique, zestful, hilarious, hysterical renditions of even the most boring stories! All this made it much more difficult for me to leave for Mumbai the next day but Elsa told me something that keeps every traveler going - "You have to leave here to get somewhere else!"

The Roadhouse hostel is a great example of why one should stay in a hostel while traveling. Clean beds, great location, helpful and cheerful staff, affordable price, great places around to eat and party, positive vibes and a cool, travelicious ambiance where people from all over the world can meet, bond, inspire and learn from each other – these are the things that make Roadhouse your perfect abode when you are in North Goa.

About Roadhouse:

FB page: 

954 Grande Peddem, Off Flea Market Road
Next to German Bakery
Anjuna, Bardez 403509

No. of beds: 

Rs. 500 per night

Friday, March 29, 2013

Mcleodganj diaries - Finale: My birthday party

The day after the trek was a lazy one. I slept for most part of the morning and then had a quiet lunch at the Tibet Kitchen restaurant without any company. 

After relishing some delicious momos and chicken, I took off to go to Tashi’s Tibetan Mandala cafe around 4 pm in the evening. On my way there, my eyes lit up when I ran into Pnina, the lady we met at the Peace cafe a couple of days ago. She was standing at a cross road trying to figure out where to head. She recognized me instantly and I asked her to join me for a cup of coffee at the Tibetan Mandala cafe. She had not seen Tashi’s cafe (which he had bragged about in our first meeting) so we both reached there and met Tashi. And thus began an evening of fun, an evening of intellectual discussions about countries, cultures, politics and religions, an evening where I met 3 awesome people who rocked my birthday party the next day – Uday Raina, Palden and Juan Pa!

Pnina and me sat at the cafe while Tashi got back to managing it as it was a busy hour. We started talking about Indian movies when Pnina mentioned that she had seen a movie in a cinema Hall in India a week ago. She described to me what the movie was about and she was surprised that I could guess its name. It was Salman Khan’s Sanam Bewafa and I was shocked to learn that there was a cinema hall somewhere in the North which was still playing this movie which first released in the early 90s! I even Googled it and showed Pnina the images to confirm that it was indeed Sanam Bewafa that she watched! J This is when Uday joined our discussion. Sitting at the adjoining table with a friend of his, Uday was an Indian who had been living in New York for almost 12 years and was on a break from his corporate life. That’s what got him to Mcleodganj. He was clearly passionate about Hindi movies, which is why he was really excited about the discussion. He introduced us to Juan Pa, a South American who was also Tashi’s friend and was living in Mcleodganj since a while learning Tibetan culture. I was extremely pleased to meet both of them and we went on chatting about various things till someone asked Tashi about the story behind the name of the cafe and what the picture of Mandala on the wall of the cafe signified. Enter the great Palden!! Tashi asked Palden to do the honours. Palden brilliantly explained to everyone sitting in the cafe what it meant and what its significance was. For these few minutes, Palden was the centre of everyone’s attention. There was an aura around him which made it difficult for anyone to look anywhere else for even a second! Once Palden was done talking, there were smiles exchanged with everyone and after some chit-chat, Tashi said we can go to some other place to hang out. Palden had to leave but I invited him for my birthday get-together that was to happen the next day. The rest of us – Juan Pa, Pnina, Uday, Tashi, Renzin and me-  took off to go to Mc Llo’s which was a restaurant right at the centre of Mcleod (called the main square).

We sat at Mc Lo’s for a few hours chatting about several things. We spoke about India, religions, Sikhs and a documentary about them, Gandhi, Israel, spirituality, languages, philosophy and so many others things. I was amazed by how well-read Uday was. He had a sense of enthusiasm about everything he said. He sometimes was too aggressive and passionate about stuff he was saying (but that could have been the alcohol talking :P). However, at all points, he kept the conversation interesting and engaging and made sure we all participated. Juan Pa, on the other hand, was the cool cucumber battling Uday’s arguments with ease and panache! I was impressed with his intelligence, knowledge, compassion and charm. 

The only symbol of beauty at our table, Pnina, very sweetly and gracefully kept adding to the conversation. She spoke about her country and asked us about a word for a land under dispute between two countries. After several failed attempts to give her the word she was looking for, we just ignored the topic and moved on :D Tashi and Renzin were happy listening to us. 

I got a call from Sapir checking where I was. She was at Bhagsu which was a 20-minute walk from the main square. She told me that she was too tired to join us but promised to see me for my birthday the next day. We sat chatting at Mc Lo’s for hours but I had no clue how time flew by. That is another great thing about Mcleodganj! You meet people and have great conversations with them without worrying about how long it has been. Nobody seems to be on a schedule. Everybody is just too happy about the time they are spending and the company they are spending it with. I, for one, did not want the evening to end but we did finally leave and while we were just outside Mc Lo’s, the clock struck 12. It was my birthday! The guys stood in a circle and sang for me. Juan Pa even did a little dance J And we left with the promise that we will all meet again at 5pm the next day for my birthday celebrations!

The next day began pretty late. I got a few calls from family and friends. Most of them could not reach my phone because of network issues or because of me being asleep or in conversations with other people. Fortunately, I did happen to speak with my Dad, my best friend and some close friends.  I then headed to Norbulingka with Natalia in the afternoon where she bought me lunch as a birthday present! 

We roamed around the beautiful place, clicked a picture of her posing as a doll (as promised to a friend of hers :D), did some shopping and then came back to Mcleod where the most happening evening of my life awaited me!

Nati went back to her hotel to get dressed for my party and I headed to my room to wash up. My grandmother had asked me to donate some money at a sacred place as a birthday ritual. So once I was ready, I headed straight to the monastery. On my way, I ran into Laura. I had met Laura a couple of days ago at the cafe and was inspired by her thoughts on Tibet and its freedom. She had told me how she has asked her family members to boycott any one Chinese item for life and that would be their Christmas present to her. This thought had moved me and my little conversation with her had given me a whole new perspective on the Tibetan freedom struggle and what we can do to be a part of it. I had invited Laura for my party in our previous meeting but I saw that she was with a group of people going towards Bhagsu. She wished me a happy birthday and said she won’t be able to make it for the party. I thanked her and started walking towards the monastery thinking that almost everyone is going to have plans like Laura did. Tashi’s cafe was on the way to the monastery so I told him I am going for a quick visit to the temple and will be back in a few minutes. Nobody I knew was at the cafe so I was not expecting anyone other than Tashi, Natalia and me to be at my birthday celebrations. This is when I got a call from Sapir asking where I was. I told her that I was headed to the monastery. When I did reach the monastery, Sapir was standing at the entrance waiting for me! 

I was extremely happy to see her. We now had one more friend for my party! She hugged and wished me a happy birthday and told me that her friends could join us later. The two of us then went into the monastery where I did what my grandmother had asked me to. In about half an hour, were back at the cafe. And here, TO MY SURPRISE -  a whole bunch of people were waiting for me to show up. They were all there – Tashi, Renzin, Pete, Uday, Juan Pa, Palden and of course Sapir! I knew Nati was on her way so the only person missing now was Pnina. I did not have her cell number so I quickly messaged her on Faceook to check where she was. Nati showed up in a bit and everyone began to get up to leave for the party venue. I had no clue where we were headed next. Palden and Tashi had taken charge and I was advised just to follow them. I wanted to wait for Pnina for some more time but then I thought may be she isn’t coming. So, we all got off the couch and right when we were to step outside the Tibetan Mandala Cafe – there she was! Standing at the door, Pnina was smiling at all of us J

We all started following Palden and while we were walking -  I noticed a lovely thing. All these guys who had come for me, had started chatting with each other. They were all taking turns to walk with a person they do not know. They chatted about where they were from, where they were staying in Mcleod, for how long have they been there and things they have done. I could see several groups of 2s and 3s walking together and even from a distance, one could say that we were all together! As we reached the main square, out of nowhere, in true Batman style – Vaibhav joined us. Vaibhav was a young lad from Mumbai whom I had met at the cafe a day ago. He had been in Mcleodganj for ages and planned to continue living over there till he ran out of all his funds. In his free time (which was pretty much all the time), he taught Hindi to a Swedish lady over there. Of all the people who came, I had expected him the least. However, not only did he come, he came with a present (an Osho book). He was lucky to catch us just on time before we disappeared from the main square. This was the beauty of Mcleodganj. People hardly needed a cell phone to co-ordinate with each other. Everybody just ran into each other or met at a pre-decided time and place.

By the time we all reached the restaurant called Common Ground, we were like a group of people who know each other pretty well! On the way, Tashi took all my cash and said that he will look after the finances. I was more than happy for him to do this :D Once we all settled down at the restaurant, we ordered a whole lot of food and then, the chats began once again. Everyone was clicking pictures, exchanging anecdotes, laughing away at Tashi’s silly jokes, bonding with each other. There were two little kids who caught everyone’s attention at the restaurant. The ladies in the group caught hold of them and started playing kid games with them. 

Once the girls let them go, Pete started teaching one of the kids something using some cards. He struck a terrific rapport with the little girl and I could see how cool a teacher this man must be! 

We were all getting along like a house on fire by the time the food arrived. We had occupied a huge table and some ground space with cushions and mattresses next to the table. The food was served across this entire space and all of us, hungry from the walk and talk, pounced on it.

 This is when Palden noticed a lovely girl sitting on a table next to ours. He spoke with her and introduced her to us. She was the beautiful and vibrant Sarah Roseman. I learned later that she was a musician and was studying at Mcleodganj. She had been there for a while and was to be there a few more months. She joined us for dinner and almost all the guys took turns to chat with her for a while :D 

Soon, it was time for her to leave. So, Tashi quickly arranged for my birthday cake to be cut. This was the first time that the cake-cutting ritual didn’t feel clich├ęd to me. I was cutting my birthday cake with friends most of whom I had met in the last 3 days and most of whom were not even from my country! And yet, it felt like I was surrounded by people whom I have known all the 27 years of my life! I looked at everybody around me. It was one of those moments where you need to pinch yourself to believe that what’s happening around you is real. Everybody was smiling and laughing and waiting for me to blow off the candles. I did not know what to wish for. I guess I just blew them off with my heart saying “Thank you God”!

The cake was distributed to everyone including those sitting at other tables. They were all happy to share our happiness. Well, I think that day we were the coolest, happiest, and most happening bunch of people in the whole of Mcleodganj! So anyone would have loved to be a part of us :D Sarah left in a bit and we were about to wrap things up at the restaurant too. I was feeling sad thinking that the evening was coming to an end and just then – our saviour, the magnificent Juan Pa, invited us to come over to his place and continue the party there. It was just what everyone wanted to hear! The chirps and chats and laughters picked up again as everyone realized that there was more to the evening! Tashi settled the bill and we all took off from the restaurant bidding goodbye to all the others there, including the little kids. On our way to Juan Pa’s house, Tashi and Uday picked up booze and once again the little groups of 2s and 3s were formed as we headed to Casa-da-Juan Pa.

I was walking with Juan Pa and I saw a whole new side to him in the 20-minute chat we had as we walked. He spoke about his life at Mcleodganj, his girlfriend and how much he loves and respects her, and his future plans. I had spoken with him the previous evening but that was all about generic topics. This was the first time he let me into his personal life and I felt really great about this. I felt honoured that a man of such awesome nature and calibre found me worthy of being his friend and was sharing all this with me. And my fondness of him grew the moment I saw his house :D It was a cool 2-bedroom apartment with a wooden floor, a lovely little kitchen and enough beds and mattresses for everyone to crash if we wanted to! We stepped into the house and in about 10-minutes, the booze was flowing, the music was playing and there were 7 crazy people dancing away to glory! The remaining 2 – Uday and Pete - were busy making their drinks and repeating them one after the other. The little apartment in Mcleodganj had transformed to a hip-n-happening pub of Mumbai minus the urban fragrances of over-sprayed perfumes and annoying attitudes thrown by people on the floor! 

This is where, after a gap of 8 years, I broke my no-alcohol resolution. All the guys wanted me to drink and I was too overwhelmed by their gestures to refuse.  Uday made me a drink which was a mixture of every kind of liquor we had in the room that day. Once I was done with that, I followed it up with a couple of beers. 

The dancing continued and this is when Tashi and Palden started forcing me to hit the dance floor with Pnina. They knew from our chats that I felt Pnina was the most beautiful lady in Mcleodganj and were using this to pull my leg the whole evening. I was too nervous and did not know what to do. Finally, Pnina herself was sweet enough to take the lead while I just followed her steps. I told her while dancing why Tashi was being such a jerk and she laughed about the whole thing! J Natalia, someone who loved dancing, went all-out with the Bollywood moves I taught her on our Triund trek. Sapir, the funniest girl of the lot, was having a blast and her dance moves could not be matched by anybody at all. Palden was being his cool self by just moving as much as he was comfortable with. Pete stepped on the dance floor occasionally to show us his cool, I-am-a-break-dancer moves. Tashi, as usual, was just throwing around his hands, legs, and butt in all directions. Juan Pa was the best of the lot dancing with all the ladies, holding and leading them with utmost grace and star-like charisma! Sapir tried to coordinate with the rest of her friends and get them to the awesome party we were having but that did not work out as one of them was unwell.

Nevertheless, we had a ball and once we were all tired, we sat down in a circle with our respective drinks. Tashi then suggested that I say a few words about everybody. Although I had not known these guys for a long time, I knew I had enough things to say for each one of them. In the little time that we spent with each other, I had indeed developed a personal bond with each person who was present in Juan Pa’s house that night. So I spoke about how Nati became my closest friend on the trip, how brilliant I thought Pete was and how I respected his views on religion and spirituality, how great Uday was at instantly making friends and also how assertive he is about certain things :D, how cute Sapir was and how I will never forget that bus incident with her, how beautiful I found Pnina to be and how meeting her was one of the best things that happened on my trip, how grateful I was to Palden for making sure my birthday party rocked, how awed I was by Juan Pa’s talents and knowledge and how happy I was that he treated me as a true friend, and last but not the least - how Tashi turned out to be the brother I never had and how much the trip to his hometown meant to me! None of the amazing events would have happened if it were not for Tashi. He was the one who invited me over and made sure, from the moment I stepped foot at Mcleod till the moment I left, that I was having fun, meeting people, and getting a break from the busy Mumbai lifestyle. He was always one of my best friends but on this trip, he taught me what friends are for and what friendship really means!

Soon after I was done talking, we decided to take off. Juan Pa offered for us to stay at his place for the night but everyone felt they should leave. So, we started walking and dropping each one off at their respective places. It was late at night (around 3 am I think) and the streets of Mcleod go quiet at around 9pm. And here we were, singing and laughing away to glory with the occasional “Shhuusshhh” from one of us. We were even stopped by cops and scolded for the noise we were making. We then realized that Mcleod would not be the place it is if we behave like this. So we calmed down and spoke softly. Pete and Pnina were the first to be dropped, followed by Palden, Sapir, Uday and Natalia. Tashi and me were the last ones to walk back home. We spoke for a bit about how unbelievable the day was and were so tired that before we could know it, we were fast asleep.

The next day was a tough one. In the worst contrast possible, fate had it that it was my last day at Mcleodganj. I had a bus to catch in the evening for Delhi from where I had to board a train back to Mumbai. I hated this day as much as I loved the previous one. The weather was as pleasant as all the other days and the people around looked as happy as always. However, it was not the same for me. The thought that it was time to leave Mcleod and go back to Mumbai was sinking in. I had just become part of an awesome group most of whom were to stay at Mcleod for longer while I was leaving to get back to my life in Mumbai as a struggling actor which, compared to my life in the past one week, was ridiculous to say the best. But I had to leave. I met Uday at the cafe with two new friends he had made – Katherine and Angel. The 4 of us left the cafe to go to the Gayki restaurant for lunch. 

As had been the course of the trip, I was now hitting it off pretty well with people in little time. I had a great time with Uday, Angel and Katherine even if it was just about 60 minutes. Angel mixed up all the dishes we ordered and created something which was a treat for the tongue and the stomach. She was a fun-loving soul who made a joke every 30 seconds. She was also a hell of a photographer. She showed me pictures of her bleeding thumb that she broke when she met with an accident while rock-climbing. Katherine, the hot girl from England, was super-friendly and very witty. She told us about the dorm she was living in and we convinced her to move out of there immediately. There were affordable places all across Mcleod that were better than the dorm. Uday asked her to check out of the dorm and meet us at the Mandala cafe after which he would help her move to a better place. We all headed our separate ways after lunch. I went towards the market to pick up gifts for the 3 girls from my birthday party (didn’t have enough money to buy stuff for the boys :P) and some flags for a friend in Mumbai. I gave the presents to Tashi asking him to hand it over to the girls when he sees them. Little did I know that in the next couple of hours, they would all show up at the cafe to see me off. Well, maybe they just came to hang out but I would like to believe they came for me :D

By 4.30 in the evening, almost all my friends from the previous night were there at the Tibetan Mandala cafe. Sapir came with her group of girls all of whom I knew from the bus incident. Pnina and Nati came in a while and I gave them the presents I had bought for them. Katherine came with her big, heavy bag and was all ready to check into Uday’s hotel. We all sat together for a while chatting about the party and about the awesome week. Tashi served me my last cup of coffee with a message on it saying “Bye Dilip”. 

Pete came in at the last moment just to say goodbye. I hugged all of them, looked at the cafe one last time, and took off. Pnina walked me to the bus stop and over there, we were joined by Tashi and Vaibhav, who as usual pulled off a batman by showing up from nowhere at the last minute and taking off without me knowing when he left. Tashi put a white cloth around me as a practise of wishing friends a safe journey. It was time for my bus to leave. I bid them goodbye, thanked them for everything and got into the bus. As the bus started moving, I leaned outside the window to look at Tashi and Pnina one last time. They were waving at me and as the bus took a turn, I lost sight of them. I sat down and in less than 10 seconds, there was a tear rolling down my cheek. I couldn’t help but think how much I was going to miss Mcleodganj, Tashi and everyone I met there. My cell beeped and when I checked it, I saw a message from Natalia which said – “Miss you already”. I replied to her and kept reflecting upon my unbelievable experience as I reached Delhi and boarded my train to Mumbai the next day. And that was the end of the most memorable trip of my life.

My dearest friends from Mcleodganj, if you guys are reading this, I just want to say – you have no idea what you have done for me. You are the most special people I know across the globe. You have given me an evening I will cherish forever and ever. The thought that such an evening with all of you guys might never come again in my life gives me great pain. However, it still doesn't take away the beautiful memories we have created that now rest safely in my heart. As different as each one of us are from one another, I saw a bit of myself in each one of you. And that says something about people and the world. That irrespective of boundaries, cultures, languages and a whole lot of things that differentiate people, we are all primarily HUMAN! And we are all capable of loving each other, finding an emotional connection with each other. Tashi, Natalia, Pnina, Juan Pa, Peter, Palden, Sapir, Uday  – I love you guys. I miss you all. And you know that I mean it.