Rumblings from a bowl of Ladakhi Maggi

It was a bright Ladakhi afternoon and she was boiling Maggi when I first entered ‘Rangdum Hotel’, called ‘hotel’, even though it hardly seemed to have any guest rooms. It was lunch  time, but one probably didn’t need a taste of the noodles to say that they were disappointing, a look at the pan was enough. They were soggy and unappetising, somehow devoid of all the life that a sunny summer day in Ladakh embodies. When she spoke, Read More

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Us & Them – Kids of Ladakh Reprise – Zanskar

Photo bhejoge ya yuhi mere judwa bachcho ki taswire leke ja rahe ho?‘, the mother retorted. An english translation would put her words as “Will you even send back these pics or are you taking pics of my twin boys just like that”. I didn’t have an answer to that. I was at Rangdum, a tiny village (if it could be called one), in the middle of a road (if ever there was one) to the valley of Zanskar from Kargil. For miles at a stretch one doesn’t come across anything alive here. Padum, the administrative center of Zanskar valley, is a hamlet light years away from what you call ‘civilization’. How in the world could I have sent back processed pictures of these kids in Rangdum where even cell phone networks didn’t work (forget photo printing)?? My guilt knew no bounds here. Shamelessly, I just backtracked my steps to the taxi which was waiting for me to finish the photo session. I had volunteered in Ladakh five years before and had returned with some wonderful pictures of kids then (Read : Us & Them – Kids of Ladakh). I wondered if I’d go back with guilt ridden pics from the current trip. This time, the trip to Zanskar had started with a drive from Leh to Kargil. It’s an arid route. Dry as a desert. Stark as moon. One would wonder how any life sustained here. Yet, one realises, that it is regions like these, far off, on the fringe, that preserve humanity at its best and humans at their warmest. A chai break on the road to Kargil gave a wonderful opportunity to meet a group of kids on their way back from their school.

The smiles of childhood

The smiles of childhood

Somewhere along the Leh Kargil Highway

Somewhere along the Leh Kargil Highway

Strangely, I never understood the reason for this but all the way around Kargil and the Suru valley, there were so many kids out on the roads, streets, highways everywhere. My friend later surmised that it could be due to lack of too many entertainment options, that they were out. No PS3s, laptops, Counter strikes. But only the legendary Views of a valley, grand mountains, gurgling rivers and apricot-loaded trees. Talk of trade-offs.

A chiildhood to wake  up these views?

A childhood to wake up to these views?

Or some place like this?

Or some place like this?

And then there were those children in the Zanskar valley, who probably walked kilometers at a stretch every morning to get to their schools, some of which could be in different villages altogether. These two kids we met during an early morning car drive, stood on the edge of the road, frantically waving their hands joined together in the gesture of a ‘namaste’ or a prayer. It was dramatic enough to remind me of those days as a kid when I’d miss my school bus and sadly wait for a friend to pass by in his car and give me a hike. Here, I had to force the taxi driver to stop and offer those kids a ride. Their thanks in the form of ‘ju ju‘ , ‘ya ju‘ still echo in my ears. And ofcourse, there was a bunch of school boys with whom we hitchhiked in a pick-up truck to go from a far off monastery to the local grounds for Independence day celebrations. Such a vibrant bunch, all of them.

School time in a pick up truck

School time in a pick up truck

Some other children we met in Padum, a small hotel owner’s son, a candy crazy little girl, a kid perched upon his father’s shoulders ..

Just a girl and her love for toffee

Just a girl and her love for toffee

Riding high

Riding high

The hotel owner's son.

The hotel owner’s son.

And finally the twins with whom this story started. To my amazement, I did actually manage to find a photo studio in Padum and print those pictures. I handed over a couple of those to their mother while returning back to Kargil. Expecting a hearty thanks, I asked her what she thought of those pics. Her reply – “Kaha achhe hain, naak toh beh rahi hai dono ki inme” (“Hardly good, both have running noses in these pics”). But this time I’m not upset. I just smile. I know better of the Ladakhis than to feel let down by her reply. They have known enough hardships in life to feel too elated or too sad about most things. I had just forgotten this in these five years. Nice to be back, finally.

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Us & Them – Kids of Ladakh

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This is the fifth in the writer’s series of photo-blogs focussed on the people of the places where he visits – Us & The

Pause & have a quiet moment

The Himalayas that lie in our Heads!

This is a superb vantage point. I stand here and look around. All I can see is several cragged peaks, of huge snowy mountains, lined one after the other. A placid lake lies at their feet. Clouds move in and out, sometimes just hanging around half way through to their height, in suspended animation. Snow smattered across the gradient of adjoining mountains melts, then solidifies again to form saucer like silvery platforms of ice between them. Had this been a larger mountain system, this would have been a glacier. There’s little I can hear, no animals, no birds at this height. I open my eyes. I stand facing the Mumbai skyline. The blaring horns of vehicles and massive drum beats of a festival celebration regain focus. All this while, I have been here, closing my eyes, trying to recede into a picture of the Himalayas that I’ve witnessed so often. I run away from Mumbai almost once every year to these mountains. Only recently did I realise that they aren’t just a place high in the northern altitudes where I seek to hide. They’re somewhere around, high and north yes, but closer, in my head. I seek refuge in them each time I want to run away. In a still moment of time, I’m there, glaring at their height, their magnificence, thinking nothing but recalling a memory of another still moment when I witnessed them, right there, in Kashmir, in Ladakh, in Nepal, in Himachal. And only yesterday, when I realised about this ‘recession’ of my head, did I wonder if travel is more than just a visit to a place one wanted to tick off the bucket list.

Somewhere, in the Himalayas of Kashmir

Somewhere, in the Himalayas of Kashmir

Has it ever happened to you that a good time spent at an awesome location kept coming back to mind long after you returned? The lost feeling of running around in the alleys of a European town, a drink with friends at a tucked away cafe, a serendipitous discovery of a lake in the mountains while you mistakenly went astray, the sounds of street-side music that you enjoyed only because you sat down to listen to it since you had all the time in the world, the clap-claps of horses walking on mountain soil or cobbled-stone streets, the wafts of kebab or olive oil or the simple mixture of sugar with butter reminiscent of a sweet you had where you travelled, the terrible songs of the nineties with Sonu Nigam singing for T-Series reminding you of a country side local bus you took in India, or the music of a Rajasthani instrument heard in a movie reminding you of the time in desert,  the taste of a paratha dripping in ghee reminding you of a detour in the Parathe wali gali of Delhi, and the list goes on.

A carefree musical performance in Berlin

A carefree musical performance in Berlin

 

Does the smell of a food remind you of a place you visited?

Do the sights and smells of food remind you of some place you visited?

I live in Mumbai and as awesome as its history is, the city has turned ugly at the hands of people like me and another 20 million who live here. It’s ugly to the extent that we rarely realise that the same cobbled stone streets that line several of those lovely European towns also line Mumbai’s streets. But each time I hear the sound of a trolley being pulled over these streets, I am reminded of Prague. It was In Prague’s charming old town square that a friend and I dragged our trolley bags several times from one hostel to another for lack of prior bookings. And as tiresome as it was then, it’s just become a wonderful memory now, reminding me of all the enjoyable times we had in Prague. As horrible as these Mumbai streets are, now I usually don’t mind dragging my trolley bags around here once in a while.

The alleys of a Bohemian town

The alleys of a Bohemian town

And so, I come back to the point that travel isn’t merely a tick mark on the bucket list. It’s an intense thought, a powerful one. Like those very few but profound childhood memories that seem to come back to us in flashbacks; like those instances from our past when we won over our own troubles, or the echo of a hearty laughter with friends or family several years back. Each of them has, upto an extent, the power of influencing our actions or shaping our lives. Travel is just that. Merely, a thought. As simple as that and as complex as that.

At this point, I quote a few lines of a Sufi song

                                                   Main ta koi khayal,                                                                   (I am just a thought,

                                        Main deedar, deedar main wich,                                               I am the vision, the vision is in me,

                                                 hun milisaan naal,                                                                     Now I can be met through

                                                       Khayal de,                                                                                 Only a thought

                                              Main taan, koi khayal.                                                                    I am just a ‘thought’)

Pause & have a quiet moment

What reminds you of travel?

What reminds you of your travels? Sights? Sounds? Memories? Church-bells? Perfume smells? Share them in the comments here :)

Us & Them – Kashmir

It is here that I decide to be a Lens. Just the lens of a camera. Period. But I secretly wish I was a human here, in this princess of lands, that an emperor once called ‘Firdaus’ – Persian for paradise.

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How I envy the splendour of the valleys that these locals dwell in, the silent opulence of their lakes and the exquisiteness of their cuisine, the wazwan. But there’s hardly ever a thing called a free lunch. Being a human has its own costs, especially in a land that evokes the strongest of pathos, from the natural beauty of a landscape & equally from the unnatural ugliness of a conflict and as much as I may yearn for it, I can’t afford to be a human here. I’m glad being just the lens, that doesn’t belong to any human, not even an eye, for even then I may end up taking sides!

I’m glad being just a lens, I’d hardly ever have to face winds as fierce in a terrain as tough..

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I’m glad being a lens for all I captured with this nomadic Bakarwal kid was his horse, and not the herculean effort of his family climbing the Himalayan passes up every summer and then down to Jammu every winter

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I’m pleased that I could pretend to just glare incessantly into the eyes of ‘chacha‘ and not listen to his woes of insufficient payments and insensitive trekkers & inefficient travel unions

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I’m glad that I could stare at the faces of these school boys but not at the uncertainty of their future

School Students

Oh and being a lens has its perks too, for I’m the only one an army would allow in its camps to capture whatever I want!

Soldier

But then that’s all that a lens can gather from a scene. And it saddens me. A land like Kashmir deserves far more than my mechanical visions.

I’m sad because I could only capture the innocent look of little Ashfaq but could hardly zoom into his dreams of growing up and becoming a soldier..

Ashfaq

I could take in the mountains and the pastures but not the delight of having a chai in the lap of the very same mountains

Chai in the Mountains

I’m angry that I could only watch with wariness when these eyes approached me, I wish I had emphasized more on the excitement in them while they recalled their travels to other parts of India

Student

And I’m disappointed that even though I focussed on the eyes of the other ‘Chacha’ , I was barely capable of focussing on his pride of climbing those numerous passes and mountains as a Kashmiri

Chacha

Truth is, it’s tough even being just a lens in Kashmir. I’v already been happy, glad, sad, angry and disappointed narrating this to you. Perhaps even as a lens, I was taking sides. May be, being an eye wouldn’t have been that tough. May be then I would have seen beyond the smoke that lies between me and them.  May be if I had been an eye, I’d have known the better of taking sides!

Chai in the mountains

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Have you been to Kashmir? What were your impressions of the place?

Monday Memories – Sarahan, Himachal Pradesh

One needs to have a 3D card in his head to figure this place out, or may be a 3D GPS in the car. Clearly, there’s no other way to find out that 18 kms up the very mountain at the foothills of which one stood a while back, lies a superbly nested tiny village called ‘Sarahan’. The way to the village winds round and round, much like the traveller’s physical & mental state. To the uninitiated, it will seem a little crazy, to go through the torture of travelling all the way so high, and for what, after all? A view? But the truth, is a bit farther. Conquering a mountain, whether by foot, on a bike, a motorbike, or even in a car, has been about figuring that little something more about yourself (perhaps about the car as well) & not just the mountain. About figuring out how life can be as difficult as climbing the mountain and as simple as the view at the top, ooth at the same time. In some of the views that strike the climber, he discovers that one bit in himself that he never thought existed. Much like the settlements & the villages on the way. Like this one, ‘Sarahan’. One couldn’t have known it was here. Or the fact that it would conjure up such majestic views as one approached it.

The view as one approaches Sarahan

The view as one approaches Sarahan

The hamlet of Sarahan lies in Himachal, half way through to the Kinnaur valley from Simla. It’s one of its kind. Perched high up on a mountain, giving the most serene views of the Himalayas, yet known by very few. I’m not sure how may buses ply to this place, and at what frequency. But there’s a settlement here. And a life in the hills that’d charm any traveller without trying one bit. That of locals going about their chores in the hills, of ladies making chai and pakodas in a cold evening, of men lighting fire on gathered wood. Fat, grubby dogs, lazing around the streets and little kids with burnt cheeks and monkey caps, chasing around the same fat dogs, a (eco-friendly) traffic jam, caused not by cars, but by flocks of sheep, where even the most monstrous of SUVs would be rendered helpless.

A Traffic jam in the mountains

There aren’t many hotels to interfere with this idyllic life or with the view either. There is, however, a Himachal Tourism Guest House, which apart from providing good facilities, has the perfect location. It’ll take a while for anyone to remove his eyes from the view that they behold at the guest house.

View from the Guest House

A little further from here, an ancient Bhimakali temple adorns the heart of the village. And if the sight of several mountains moving in & out of clouds is not enough, there’s another view point, further higher, for you to stare at the mountains endlessly.

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The ancient Bhimakali temple

It’s a place to build memories, to wonder at the greatness of the mountains, or sit alongside one of the houses built in a traditional architecture, or in a silent moment, to simply pause & listen to the sound of the Satluj gushing past in the valley several kilometres below. Come to think of it, Sarahan is just a simple village in the hills. Just that I still can’t figure out why I keep wanting to go back ever since I returned. Why don’t you go too & help me figure out?

Pause & have a quiet moment

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Been to Sarahan? How was your experience?