Folks! I am back!
After eight whole days.
I had a fabulous trip. If you ask me to describe Himchal to you in one word, I would say b-e-a-u-t-i-f-u-l. The other word that comes to my mind is d-i-s-t-a-n-t. It’s really far from Bombay – I spent almost as much time traveling as I did staying there- but in the context of the larger picture, that’s entirely inconsequential.
I spent time moving between a cluster of 15 villages- primarily looking at education programmes of the government and alongside exploring and understanding other developmental activities being conducted there.
Getting around to these villages was not a joke. The distances were tremendous, the roads narrow and winding and the most trusted mode of transportation -hold your breath-the motorcycle! How they consider wobbly, unstable bikes, their “trusted” source of transportation, I don’t know. But I do know this, for the uninitiated pillion rider, like yours truly, these bike rides were a nightmare. I think I revised the Hanuman Chalisa a thousand times over in my head while riding those bikes!! I am not afraid of heights. Nor do I get altitude sickness. But put together great attitudes, high speed and wobbly bikes and you have yourself the perfect combination to stir up throat- parching fear! 😛 But as adaptable as human beings are, by the end of day 2, I had concluded for myself that I wasn’t going to plummet to my untimely death, and that’s when I began enjoying the bike rides. Once I got over the fear of falling off the bike(and the hill), the rides were very nice. The higher up you go on the mountains, the cooler the breeze gets, the vegetation changes to included pines and other coniferous trees and the valleys below look absolutely breath taking. I did manage to take two falls during my stay.I scraped my elbow on a rough edged stone and practically landed on my backside due to a failed attempt to get off the bi. the very next day, I bruised my knee when I slipped on a algae covered pathway. Both the times it was a rather public fall, much to the amusement of the villagers. They couldnt understand how a grown up had problems maintaining her balance. Hmmph. They’ve lived their all their lives, they wont understand.
The weather was beautiful- neither too cold nor too warm, with just a slight chill in the air in the early mornings and late evenings. Being the monsoon, it rained intermittently. The sun played hide and seek with the clouds all through the day and after a spell of rain, a mist would envelop the tops of the mountains- like a halo over their heads. The rains had painted the mountains a refreshing, lush green.
Infrastructure wise- I found Himachal to be very advanced. All villages (or at least the cluster I visited) have continuous electricity supply. Most have roads- either tarred or cobbled. Its a different matter that on some of the raods its safer to walk up than drive up, but roads exist and they are in a good shape. The school buildings are in good condition too. The teacher student ratio is about 1:20!! I dont think I have seen that kind of a ratio in any school in the cities. Literacy rate amongst women is one of the best in the country and school enrolment levels are high too. Most people had well-kept homes- no broken windows, no un-plastered, cracking walls- all indicating that the standard of living was much higher than other states. All this was quite a contrast from what I have seen in rural Maharashtra. I was expecting that things would be worse in Himchal because of the weather and the terrain but I was happy to discover I was wrong in my assumption. Of course , there is no limit to holistic rural development and a lot can be still be done,but I was glad to note that most of the universally accepted developmental indicators seeemed to be in place in these villages.
I found the people in Himachal very warm- everyone wanted to know where I had come from, how long I’d be staying and if I’d like to share a meal with them. If I politely declined the offer of a meal (which I did in all cases) I was offered unending cups of tea. Hospitality was truly at its best there. I found the people were an interesting mix of strength and resilience and mildness. The tough terrain has made them physically very tough but in their heart they remain soft, mild natured,extremely polite people.
Himachal Pradesh is knows for its delicious fruits and I was expecting to find large orchards growing many variety of fruit trees. I dint find any large orchards but I did find plenty of fruit trees, either growing wild or in courtyards. I got to eat apricots plucked fresh off someone’s tree. Those were probably the best tasting apricots I have ever had. Most people in the villages I visited cultivate fruits for self- consumption. So they are quite flabberghasted if you tell them you want to buy some fruits from them. They are willing to let you pick any number of apricots/plums/pomegranates from their trees, but they refuse to charge you for them! On some of the main hill roads, there are a few young boys sitting with baskets full of apricots, trying to strike a bargain with passer bys, but when you discover exactly what kind of a “bargain” they are trying to strike, you almost laugh out loud. A whole kilo of apricots for all of twenty rupees!! And they are willing to bargain on that price !! The region has a local variety of pomegrante. Called “daru”, the fruit grows wild in parts of solan district. It is a smaller version of the pomegranate we eat. Its green on the outiside and is very sour in taste. I was told this variety of the fruit is the one used to make amchur powder.
The area has loads of monkeys. Typical of their tribe, the move in large bands, make strange sounds and get raving mad if you come close to their little ones. I am not mad about monkey so I kept my distance. But I did find them extremely interesting to observe from a great distance- so human like, so intelligent and so entertaining!! The villagers, of course don’t see the monkeys as entertaining. They eat the fruits on the trees and destroy the crops in the fields.
i dint miss connectivity one bit. I was quite happy with out it. Not being connected to everyone all the time is, in my opinion, re-charging.
This trip was of just the right duration- long enough for me to enjoy it and short enough to not get home sick! I think I need to make a few more trips like this….soon!
Edited to add: How could I have forgotten to write this??! On my onward journey I had to take a cab from the nearest railway station to the guest house. The company was to send a car to pick me up but in the eleventh hour they informed me no car was available. So I had to take a cab, tell the cabbie where I wanted to go and within 3.5 hours I would be delivered at my destination.I got off at the station, found the pre-paid taxi stand and asked to be dropped to my destination. The driver seeemed ok. I took down his name and car registeration number as a precaution.So far so good. 30 minutes later, the “so far so good” because “so far soo not good”. As we moved away from the station, the population became sparse, the roads dangerously winding and the speed of the car neck-breaking. I was directionless( remember I am the one who is directionless in my own city! In a new place , I am obviously lost beyond words). I tried to tell the driver to slow down. I asked him a few questions to figure out if we were headed in the right direction. He refused to slow down and gave vague answers regarding how long it will take to reach our destination. Panic stuck big time when he made a sudden unplanned stop at a small shop-cum-dhaba ,saying “mujhe maggi khana hai” The shop was extremely isolated. Except for the shop keeper there wasnt a soul around. No huts, no people, no cattle. Not even a stray dog. My mind was running amok with idea. The driver was a man on the state’s most wanted list, who was doubling up as a driver after getting out of the jail. He was taking me to an undisclosed destination of his choise and planned on making me the headlines of tomorrow’s newspaper. Just as I was wondering how efficient the state’s police was, I got a call from my mother. She said I sounded funny. I said ” well yeah! i donno where the hell I am. I donno this driver and right now death seems certain.” Typical of mothers , she told me not to worry,she would make things ok. I wondered how! She lived thousands of miles away!! Two minutes after hanging up on her, I began getting phone calls- from the bombay office, from the site office, from my boss, from colleagues. Everyone wanted to know where I was and how I was doing. Profuse applogies were offered for not being able to send the office car. One the local staff members asked me to hand over the phone to the driver. God knows what he said to him, but after the call the driver was very well behaved. He dint speed, dint back answer and dint act smart. I was at my destination well within time, awash with relief. I discovered soon how my mother had gotten the whole wide world to call and track me. She made one phone call to the top-shot in the organisation and one to another senior staff member, politely stating that her daughter had been sent to some god-forsaken place without adequate arrangements. Realising the lapse on their part, the management kicked into action. For future reference i learnt:
a) its ok to point out errors on the part of the management as long as its done politely and in serious cases. Dont nit-pcik, but if you have a genuine case, state it.
b) if you are going to some distant lands, make sure all the arrangements are in place. Its helps avoiding unnecessary anxiety – for you and others.
c) never doubt the abilities of your mother. Distance is not a deterrant.