Random travel Stories – NorthEast Chronicles : Part 1 – Thugs, friendly waiter and red light areas

I left jaigaon early in the morning on a bus that was actually from bhutan. My friend guru helped hoist my cycle and other stuff onto the bus. Unfortunately, I later discovered that i had boarded the wrong bus and the right bus was actually behind us. The conductor shouted himself hoarse at me. Initially the bus driver upon seeing my cycle, got down from the bus and refused to drive further. However once both of them calmed down, we managed to load everything and I even got a seat.

It was all smooth sailing for about an hour or so. But later, at some highway, our bus was stopped by thugs on the highway. They had saffron ribbons on their heads and were demanding durga puja chanda from every damn truck, bus and car. Anyone who refused to pay were told that they would not be given further passage on the road and were asked to go back. The peaceful bhutanese fellow passengers in my bus were simply flumoxed at the turn of events and sat there dumbstruck. A few samaritan indians who were travelling in the bus got down to calm down the thugs and talk to them. However, they were in no mood to listen. Finally, the timid driver paid him Rs 50. But upon seeing it, one of the thugs threw it back into the bus and asked the bus driver to go back the same way he came. I hung my head in shame seeing how my fellow countrymen were acting.

After a few minutes, a senior henchman came and asked what was the ruckus all about. Once he understood that this was a bhutanese bus, he asked his “juniors” to waive the bus off. As we passed the thugs, the lower henchmen’s face looked like a candy was being snatched away from their hands!!

At the breakfast point, the other bus in which i was supposed to be caught up with us and thus, i changed the bus and reloaded the cycle and other luggage all over again.

The bus ride till rangia was very smooth. One weird thing i saw near the assam/west bengal border was that there was a very heavy and thorough army checking.

I got down near rangia bus stop and started assembling my cycle amid much amusement and curiosity of the villagers.

As i pedaled away from the bus stop, i felt the wind in my hair and i felt my trip had finaly started. But after only 15 or so kilometers, I was sweating like a pig. I had not accounted for the intense heat of assam. It wwas a bit confusing. This was supposed to be the north east!! So why was it so hot?!! Turns out, most of Assam is flat like a table and most of it sits on the banks of bramhaputra thus making the place hot and humid.

I decided to have lunch before reaching guwahati and hence stopped for lunch in a nondescript dhaba which wasn’t really crowded.

For some reason, the waiter there was very friendly and helped me park my cycle in a safe place and gave me water to wash my face and hands. When he asked me what i wanted to eat, I asked him to bring rotis and any curry that he thinks was the best. He really surprised me with the best paneer butter masala I had in days. Before I finished my lunch, he filled my water bottles and also the water bladder! I thanked him after my lunch and tried to tip him but he refused flatly.

So i left for guwahati with a full and happy stomach. But the ride was a struggle owing to the still hot sun and humidity. As i reached guwahati, I realized that the traffic was as bad as bangalore. And since there are many many cyclists in assam, no one gives you any space or respect.

I quickly found one hotel and deposited my bags in the third floor and locked my cycle in the passage. The room looked dingy, filthy and unlivable but I had no option. I did not want to trawl through the awful guwahati traffic.

The worst part was, when i came down for dinner, i realized that the floor below mine was a red light area and there were women standing around making suggestive gestures. Cursing my fate, I shouted at the receptionist for not making this clear when i paid for my room. He said since I was on 3rd floor, I should not worry about it. Since I had already paid for the room, I had no choice but to go with what I had.

That night in that dirty room was the lowest point of my trip. I almost thought of giving up and heading back home. Thankfully, I had friends I could talk to on the phone and they sort of cheered me up enough to carry on with the trip.

Learnings from the random aimless travels

Now that i am just 5 more months away from turning 30, i feel i am qualified enough to write one of those pretentious “Advice to 20 year old from a 30 year old” posts. So here we go:

  1. You kind of read everywhere how it’s important to travel when you are young. They say you can worry about money and savings later but you NEED to make memories now. “Throw caution to the wind, set yourself free, travel” etc etc; you see posts such like everywhere. Here’s my take on it: This is a stupid advice. You can travel all your life if you are willing to make a few adjustments/compromises. Not just when you are young. I’m pretty sure that when I’m 40, if i have the money required, I’d be biking/backpacking across south america as if there was no tomorrow. What i suggest is, during your 20’s, apart from travelling, invest in yourself. Learn as much as you can. It’s true that making memories is important but 20 years down the line, you wouldn’t remember that funny thing that happened to you while you were stranded in the middle of no where in ladakh…but any skills you have learned will still stay with you.
  2. It’s not just enough to “make memories” or experience something new while travelling. It’s important that you learn or get something out of it. A friend recently asked me what have i learned while travelling/ trekking in the outdoors and i had no answer. I feel I am essentially the same person that I was at 22. Sure i had some mind blowing experiences but i did not learn much from those experiences nor did it change who i am. I am still a control freak and i still panic when things get out out of my control. I was almost robbed once on the road but did not learn anything from it. As in, if i were to be confronted by a group of people in the middle of nowhere, i still wouldn’t know how to respond or react. Nor do I know what precautions to take before hand. Or, if I were to get lost while trekking on a trail, i still wouldn’t know how to navigate or get myself to safety. I never bothered about these things because i was too busy trying to “live in the moment”. Had i spent a few sane hours learning about basics of first aid, outdoor survival etc etc; I could have put my learning to better use and would still have had more enriching and fulfilling experiences.
  3. I’d like to think i have become more broad minded by travelling to new and exotic places. But, it’s not true. I still carry my prejudices and biases where ever i go. There is a big difference between who you are as a person when you are on the road and who you are once you are back home. When you are on the road, you feel vulnerable and hence you tend to open up with strangers and learn to accept things as they are. You think you have changed as a person but when you get back home, you get back into the closed cocoon that you are used to living in and the “traveller you” does not fit into this cocoon of yours.
  4. I once read this line and it rings truer with each passing day: “The only peace you’ll find on the summit of a mountain is the peace you’ll bring up with you”. The same can be said of your personality. I’d like to think that travelling does not change much who you are. Rather, travelling amplifies the person that you already are. Your strengths, weaknesses, your fears and insecurities etc; are all laid bare for you to see.
  5. I’m sure you have read this over and over again in many many different blogs and i am restating/plagiarizing it here once more: “Fall in love with the process/journey, not the product/destination”. I spent much of my 20’s fantasizing about how I’d become a mountaineer and go stand on new summits with virgin snow. I dreamed of golden sun rises and sunsets over blue ice. But i never accounted for the hard work, skills or the sacrifices required to really be a mountaineer. When confronted with the actual reality of how to go about becoming a mountaineer, i realized that I did not really have the guts/gumption for it. And the skills required to become one takes years and years of practice. Since then, I have scaled back my expectations and I am now content enough to call myself a recreational trekker. (not even amateur)
  6. No two humans are the same. It’s amazing how people throw offhanded remarks like: “Oh he had it really bad in life and he still made it. If he can do it, so can you”. It’s especially misleading when you see so much content online meant to “inspire” you but is basically hogwash. Read about how one leg amputee climbed everest and how you have no excuses?? that’s bullshit. I can bet you still can’t do it with 2 perfectly fine legs. If there is one thing that the outdoors has taught me, it’s this: “No two humans are the same“. On any measurable scale. To give you examples, one person might be a proficient climber but his body just cannot function in altitudes above 5500 mtrs. Another person might have no penchant for climbing and yet, he flourishes in high altitudes. Some might just eat biscuits, drink tea and survive for days on end on the high altitude by burning off their body fat while you might not be able to survive without decent meals regularly. It’s very very important to listen to your body, know your personality and define your own limits. It’s very stupid to take any generic advice on specific issues from other people. And i think this applies to life in general as well. And as you age, this difference gets starker and starker. You can especially see this in older people. I know of one 60 year old running coach who regularly clocks 3:30 on a full marathon and i also know of a 58 year old relative who died of heart disease.
  7. Stereotyping is the worst form of discrimination. The very worst. I am no saint. I have fallen for this multiple times and i am guilty myself of stereotyping different kinds of people. But it’s much harder to look past the stereotypes, the biases and accept people as individuals rather than a group of people acting the same way. In Assam, they told me the people of arunachal are too “wild” and are hence dangerous. In arunachal, they said the people of assam are a bunch of backstabbers. In assam, i was told the people of meghalaya areunruly and not civilized. In meghalaya i was told both arnachalis and assamese are stupid and backwards. In leh, i was told the people of srinagar would backstab me for money. In srinagar, they said the mountain people of ladakh are drunkards. Apart from a few isolated incidents, i have never found any of this to be really true. Stereotyping a group of people based on one bad egg is the very worst form of discrimination. To give you another example, in general, i have always found that the people of bihar tend to be discriminated/maligned very badly where ever they go. To me, this is unfathomable. Even the term “bihari” is derogatory. If anything, the kindest/most helpful people i have met on the road were from bihar. If you are ever in trouble on the road or are in need of help, pray to whatever god you believe in that you meet a person from bihar to bail you out. They are the most resourceful and ruthlessly pragmatic people i have ever met.
  8. “Help will always be given to those who ask for it” I can vouch for this one. I have met with multiple travellers on the road who swear by this “mantra”. I don’t believe in any of the karma crap but somehow, this has always proved to be true. If you follow the basic etiquette of the place where you are travelling and if you are humble and give respect to others, you will always be treated well. I don’t know how the internal mechanisms of this works, but it does. 9 over ten times, this works. The key is not to be scared.
  9. If I HAVE learned anything from my travels, it’s this: Learn to respect others for who they are and not for what they do. Having talked with servers in highway dhabas, having gotten drunk with watchmen, having slept in a taxi drivers’ house, having eaten the lunch of a food cart worker, having shared food with the staff in hotels, i have gained so many new perspectives on life in general. Most often than not, you’ll find that the wisest people on the road are the ones who have never received an hour of formal education. You’ll find that those who have less tend to give more and more. It is therefore very important to respect every single individual. NEVER judge a person by their profession. Also, learn to call people by their names,not by their job role ie; do not call a waiter as a waiter,a driver as a driver etc; i think it’s very rude and offensive. Instead, ask them of their names and use their names to address them.
  10. Intelligence is overrated. This does not pertain to travel but is a general life lesson i have learned the hard way from the outdoors. Whenever something seemed difficult, I have always, ALWAYS hid behind the excuse that i am not intelligent enough to accomplish the given task and have backed off from confronting challenges. If the outdoors has taught me anything, it’s that persistence can beat pretty much all kinds of talent/intelligence.
  11. There is a very very thin line between giving up out of fear and giving up because you have truly reached your limits. I think most of our lives would be spent figuring out just where is this line drawn for us specifically as individuals. Don’t believe in the crappy inspirational blogs that try to make you believe that we have no limits. We DO have limits both physical and mental. It’s a whole other matter that, by training hard and consistently, you can push those limits further and further. But there is always a line. You can’t just see an inspiring youtube video about the outdoors and then go hiking alone in western ghats. You might just get killed. Take it from me. I have made these sort of mistakes repeatedly.
  12. There is also a thin line between making decisions by taking a calculated risk and taking a decision because you know, YOLO! When to give in to impulse and when to be prudent?? It’s often confusing and i think i’ll never learn where and how to draw a line between the two.
  13. THE MOST IMPORTANT LESSON OF ALL. It’s ok if you ignore my whole stupid ranting blog but always remember this: “DO NOT UNDERESTIMATE THE POWER OF WATER“end of the story. Period. I have heard of too many horror stories and I have lost one or 2 friends because they broke this golden rule. If you go to the outdoors with friends, and if you chance upon a water body, then you’ll eventually want to get into water. If you do not know swimming, NEVER NEVER NEVER get into the water. Do not give in to peer pressure. If you know swimming but if the water body happens to be flowing, then enter the water only if you truly know what you are doing. Even michael phelps would drown in flowing water. You stand no chance. If alcohol is involved, then for the love of god, do not enter the water. And do not let others enter the water if they are drunk. Someday, your friends will thank you for this common sense. If you are stupid enough to enter the water whilst being inebriated, you not only get yourself killed, you also spoil the place for the future visitors. JUST DON’T DO IT. We once crossed a raging himalayan stream. The water levels in the stream rose exponentially in a matter of minutes. But we knew what we were doing. We had the right equipment and staff to make sure nothing untoward happened. Thus, we crossed safely. Not trying to brag but you really need to know what you are doing when you are near any sort of water body. Do you know that statistically, kids have a one in a hundred chance of being killed in a gun related accident? Do you also know that, 1 in 6 children are likely going to be killed in a swimming pool related accident? Make the right choice. Drunken driving is dangerous but, playing with water when drunk is much much much more dangerous.
  14. Sometimes, It’s the people you meet on the road that makes the journey worth it. I have been to some incredible places in India. Some of the places were beyond my wildest imagination. But, in the longer run, I am going to remember the incredible, exotic strangers whom I met as a part of these journeys.

Then there is a whole other topic of applying whatever epic lessons you seem to have drawn from your experiences while travelling. Sure, i have learned a lot but, it remains to be seen just how much i will apply those learnings in my day to day life.


Rann of Kutch-12 (The Arrogant Athiest Part 2)

At 5:50 PM, i took off from gaduli on cycle (after having some vada pavs and dhabelis). I still had 20 Kms to go to reach Lakhpat fort. As i rode alone through the highway on my cycle towards Lakhpat, I could see the brilliant sun set to my left. It changed from golden yellow to red. After the sun set, there was a faint thin pink line left behind on the horizon and that, combined with the blue of the night mixed together to form a riot of colors that was a sight to behold.

As I reached Lakhpat fort, it was nearing total darkness. There was a chai stall just outside the fort and I approached it. I asked the guy standing behind the stall about finding acco for the night and to my utter surprise, he said there were no lodges in this area and my only chance of finding shelter for the night would be the gurudwara inside the fort. He asked me to hurry up as the fort’s gates would be closed in few minutes.

So, I got into the fort and took a few minutes to guess the way to the gurudwara. Near the gurudwara, I parked my bike outside it’s gate and stepped inside.

The keeper of the temple was sitting at his desk near the entrance and I went to him. With a totally embrassed expression, I asked him if i could get a place to stay for the night. I told him I was supposed to have reached this place much earlier but, due to unforeseen circumstances, had overshot my schedule.

He looked at me and held up his hand and said, “yeh gurudwara hai, yahaan har kisi ko rehne ke liye jagah aur langar uplabd hai. Hum kabhi kisi ki jaat nahi dekhte. Bas, ID card hona chahiye kyun ki yeh border area hai.”
(This is a gurudwara. Here, shelter and food is guaranteed to people of all backgrounds. We don’t see anybody’s religion before offering food or shelter. But, we do require an ID card since this is the border area. )
“Bas, hamari ek hi nivedan hai ki aap jabtak gurudwara ke andar rahenge, tab tak, sar ko dhak ke rakhna hai. Kapda hum de denge”
(Our only request is, keep your hair covered till you are in the gurudwara premises. We’ll provide the cloth for it.)

I was stunned and humbled by the straightforwardness and conviction with which he spoke. I produced my ID card and minutes later, was allocated a room near the top of the gurudwara. He asked me to get to the kitchen by 9 PM for the langar (food).
I went into the temple to pay my respects and came out and read some history about the fort and the gurudwara and then headed straight to my room, desperate to get a change of clothes and a shower. (The bathroom/toilet was shared)

The langar was sumptuous but simple fare (langar basically means, the food served by the gurudwara is considered as a form of prasad)

As I headed back to my room, I found myself out of words again. I was served food without any sort of judgment and was provided with shelter for the night without any questions.

All sort of questions popped out in my head. Why are these guys so humble?? Why did they serve me food??? Don’t they know i am an arrogant atheist?? What makes them so compassionate and empathetic??

For all the ridicule i had shown towards religion and “gods”, by all rights, I deserved to sleep in the open in the cold night. But no, I was served food with genuine warmth and I had a bed waiting in my own room.

“What if I am wrong?” I asked myself…but I had no answers…I threw the question into the night towards the salt desert which was visible in the distance but it did not answer back.

Rann Of Kutch-11 (The soldier)

It was 9 AM or so when I came back to my “camp” from the white rann in dhordo. My “camp” (singe man tent) was setup near the BSF camp just near the entrance to the salt desert. There was a cool breeze passing through the flat lands and the heat was bearable. I got my kindle and ipod out of my tent and settled down just outside my tent to read some books while listening to music. But that was not to be as a gujrat police’s border patrol causally strolled towards me and I knew he wanted to have a chat. So, i put my stuff away and smiled at him. As he came nearer, I saw he was carrying an AK 47 rifle and he had a big mustache. I was somewhat  uncomfortable.

After the usual introductions and endless of questions about where i am from etc; he told me about himself. I’ll not divulge his name but he was born as a rajput in pakistan. During the 1971 war, he, along with his family crossed the border into india and sought refuge in India. Eventually he landed a job with the border police force.

He asked me if i was a bramhin and when i nodded yes, he looked satisfied and asked me if I was married. Foolishly, I told him I was not and i further told him, rather arrogantly, that i don’t plan to get married. He was silent for a few minutes and when he looked at me again, there was sadness in his eyes. I realized I had said something massively offensive.

He told me that his first wife had been left behind in pakistan when he had migrated to india. He applied for a visa to pakistan and got her back to india as well and then they had tried to have a kid. But, it had ended in disaster as both the baby and the mother died during birth.  Undeterred, he married again and had 3 male kids who were now well off and had families of their own.

Then, he looked at me in the eye and said “Tum mujhe apni baat do ki tum peeche ghar jaake shadi karoge. Apne paapa aur maa ko itna dukh mat do. Tum iss rann mein chaahe jitni bhi door kyun na jao, agar tumhare mata pita ko khush nahi rakha hai to tumhe kabhi sukh nahi milega.
Iss umr mein shaadi karne ke bajaaye, bhagat singh banke yahaan akele tambu khada karke baitha hua hai. Mat bano aise
(Promise me that, once you go back home, you’ll get married. Don’t trouble your parents too much. No matter how far you go into the rann, if you have not made your parents happy, then you’ll not be happy. At this age, instead of getting married, you are being rebellious and sitting here alone in a tent. Don’t continue this)
He said these words with utmost sincerity and earnestness in his eyes. I had no words but kept looking at him silently nodding my head.

After he left, I went and took a cold water bath in the bathrooms that were assigned to the BSF guys (i had asked their permission of course).

I spent the entire day lounging around the Rann Utsav and i really stood out because of my dirt-bag appearance and the well to do tourists kept edging away from me and kept throwing dirty looks at me. Not really caring, i just ate as much food as i could get my hands on.

In the evening, from sunset till closing time, I had a gala time at the salt desert watching the sunset. The white rann was bathed in gold and then red during sunset and after dark, it acquired a ghostly white hue owing to the near-full moon.

I came back to the tent and packed stuff up in expectation of leaving the next day and slept after having arranged everything in order.

Morning came and I got up and finished packing my tent and was ready to take off when the police guy came sauntering towards me again. This time, he looked a little serious and I was a little alarmed.

He looked at me seriously and said, “Tumne mujhe apni baat di hai ki tum wapas ghar jaake shaadi karoge. Yaad rakhna. Aap mere sabse chote bete ke umr ke barabar ho, isliye buzurk ho kar bol raha hoon, itna zid mat karo aur pehele apni behen ki shaadi karwa do aur phir tum bhi shaadi kar lo. Agar budhaape mein tumhare saath koi nahi rahega to tumhe bahut dukh lagega. Jawani ki garam khoon mein aisi phaisla mat lo.”
(You have promised me that you’ll go back home and get married. Your age is that of my youngest son and so, i am advising you as an elder, don’t be so stubborn. Get your sister married first and then you too get married. If you are left alone in your old age, you’ll be very unhappy. Don’t take rash decisions in the rush of your youth)

He then extended his had towards me while looking into my eyes earnestly. Unable to say anything, I just nodded my head and he smiled.
Before i left, he posed for pictures with my cycle holding his AK-47 rifle and then accompanied me all the way till the outside gate of the Rann Utsav. There were a few more people from his unit near the gate and he asked them all to join us at the tea stall near the gate. He ordered tea for me in the stall and also ordered for some confectioneries and asked me to eat them all.

When i offered to pay, he refused flat out and shook my had again and as I got up on my cycle to leave, he said, “Jo akela jaata hai, bhagvaan usske saath jata hai. Bas khush-hal ghar pahunch jaana” and waved goodbye.
(God goes with those who go alone)

He was a hardened soldier who had spent a lot of time at the borders in harsh conditions. He was six feet tall and had a scary mustache and carried an AK-47 rifle in his hand all the time. And yet, he was the softest, kindest and the most empathetic man I have ever met.

As i started pedaling, I had tears in my eyes knowing that i made a false promise to an honest man knowing fully well that, it was a promise I would not keep.

Rann Of Kutch-10 (Punctures)

Dated: 31-dec-2014

It was only 10 AM in the morning but it was sizzling hot. The sun was beating down on my head and I stood alone on a deserted back road near to dhordo. I was so far from the highway that, walking out was not an option. I had a 360 degree view of the entire desert and I could see no man nor vehicle for miles in any direction.

I sighed and thought about what to do. At first, panic started rising inside me as i mentally went through the possible outcomes of being stranded here. Some were drastic and others not so much. I shook my head again and asked myself to shut up and got down to work.

When i had left the dhordo camp, I was told that there was a short-cut back road which would take me straight to gaduli and further onto koteshwar/lakhpat fort. My other option was to take the highway back to nakhatrana and then onwards to koteshwar. But, with this shortcut route, I’d save over 50 kms and I had chosen this option without hesitation.
But, I never considered the fact that, the back roads of a desert area might be filled with thorns. Not more than 6 or 7 kms from dhordo, my rear tire had a flat.

I looked at the flat tire at hand again and worked my way through…first i removed the panniers, then the skewer and then took out the tire, got the tube out and discovered there were 3 flats on the same tube!! Slowly, i fixed them one by one…By the time I had fixed everything and was back on the saddle, it was 10:50 AM.

As i started turning my crank over, I cursed myself for having deviated from my planned route and for not having considered the possibility about thorns on these roads.

By 1 PM, I had covered less than 20 kms (from the start point, dhordo) and I had gotten close to 9 flats on both the front and the back tires (even after having changed to new spare tubes on both front and back tires!!!!!). Every single time I had patiently gotten off the bike and had followed through the motions and had fixed the punctures repeatedly.

So, when i stopped for the umpteenth time because of another flat at 1 PM,  I gave out a loud exasperated roar and kicked the cycle hard (sorry about that fellow bikers and cycuu). There was of course no one to see me. I decided that I wouldn’t ride anymore on the backroad and started walking my cycle. After what must have seemed like half an hour, I could see the highway and my heart leapt with joy. As I reached the highway, I saw a motor cycle approaching and I sighed with relief, Atleast, I’d get somewhere today!!!!

The gentleman told me that Hajipir was just 10 kms away on the highway and he told me I’d find some kind of a mechanic there. Excited, i fixed the puncture on my rear wheel in quick time and then sat on the saddle and stormed off towards the village determined to reach it before another flat!

As i reached Hajipir, I made a bee-line for the lone hotel/stall there. I was hungrier than ever. To my utter bad luck, the shop had closed for the day and I had to contend with a few biscuits.

Then, I found a small mechanic shop and the mechanic was about to shut shop for the day and leave. However, I begged him to help me fix all the flats on my cycle. He hesitated for a bit and then opened his shop again.

I had 2 tubes on my bike and another 2 tubes as spare and I had used them all up to get to hajipir. In half hour, he fixed close to 16 punctures on all 4 tubes!!!! To avoid further pinch flats, I asked him to pump the tires upto 70 PSI.

After 45 mins, after having sorted out the entire puncture problem, I was ready to ride towards lakhpat fort (my destination for the day). When I asked the mechanic how much I should pay him for his work, I was expecting he’d say at least Rs 200. To my utter surprise, he said Rs 20. My mouth fell open and I asked him why so less?? He said since i was in trouble when i came to him, he would not charge me extra. I had no words to this and I forced him to take atleast Rs 100 for his work. But he simply wouldn’t. After a lot of friendly haggling, we settled down to Rs 60 and I paid him that much.

I got on my saddle and started riding towards Lakhpat. As I rode, I thought about what happened. In most places you’d haggle on prices to pay LESS for the services obtained and yet, I had just haggled with an honest, kind hearted man to pay MORE!!!!
Such is the contrast of life in our crazy world!!

Rann of Kutch-9 (The Chillum sadhu)

Dated: 26-Dec-2014

It was 9 PM in the night. I had just finished my dinner at the Ekal mandir and was headed back to my room. My plan for the night was not to stay in the room but, I wanted to camp alone in middle of the salt desert. I was heading to the room hoping to pack what i needed for the night and then go to the salt desert.

As I entered my room, I was greeted with a shocking scene!! 8 or 10 people were sitting in the room laughing and eating and, on “MY” bed, a sadhu was seated. They had causally swept aside all my belongings and they had cleared my bed out and now this huge swarthy sadhu was seated there.

This sadhu looked like he had come straight out of the kumbh mela or something. The hair on his head was voluminous and it was tied together with some kind of cloth. He had a magnificent beard and his eyes were blazing. It was clear he was one of those followers of shiva who keep roaming around in the himalayas.

What’s interesting to note here is, most people are afraid of sadhu’s like this because they perceive them to be very powerful and harsh and unforgiving. I’m told that most people avoid looking these sadhu’s in the eye.

Our eyes met as soon as i entered the room and i stared at him for a few seconds unable to say anything. I tore my eyes off him and asked if I could pack my stuff up. He said no problem.I went in and quickly packed up all my stuff. One part of my mind was focused on making sure i did not leave anything behind and the other part was focused on not looking back at the sadhu who was following my every move.

When i finished packing, one of his followers asked me to sit with them for a few minutes. One part of me wanted to run away from the room but I managed to blurt out yes and sat down.

The sadhu then brought out a huge chunk of charas from his bag!!! I mean, the “piece” was so huge, it would have been enough to sustain these 10 guys for over 6 months. I causally glanced over it and one look told me it was the manala cream.  I was shocked to say the least!! Next, the chillums came out and I dropped all pretense and was staring at them with my mouth hanging open!

“Chillum piyoge???” (Will you smoke?) asked the sadhu looking straight into my eyes. His gaze was very uncomfortable. It felt like he knew something about me that I didn’t. I shook my head and looked away. He smiled and said, “thoda sa pee lo, acchi neend aa jaayegi” he said (smoke for a bit, you’ll get good sleep). I shook my head again and then one of the disciples looked over at me and said: “baccha hai abhi yeh” (he’s still a kid). The entire room burst out laughing and even I smiled a bit.

After they finished their rounds, they asked me where i was from and where i was headed. I told them all about my cycling trip. Another one of his disciples cracked a joke again but the sadhu said, “hum sab yahaan yaatra karne ke liye toh aaye hain. Cycle se ho yaa gaadi se ho yaa pairon pe, yaatra toh sabko karna hai” (We’re all here to travel. Be it on cycle, or vehicle or on foot, everyone has to travel).

I didn’t know if it was one of those profound, chillum-inspired thoughts of the sadhu or if it was pure gibberish. I told him I had to take leave as I had to reach the rann and setup my camp. After making sure I had left nothing behind, I bid them good bye and left the room.

As I headed out, the sadhu said again, “tumhe lagta hai ki tumhe rann mein jaa kar khushi aur shanti milegi par tum galat ho” (You think you will find peace and happiness by going to the rann, but you are wrong).

I turned back and looked at him. He had read me after all, because, that was precisely the reason I had sought out the salt deserts. Unable to say anything, I just turned and left.

Rann of Kutch-8 (The strange traveler)

Dated: 25-dec-2014

I had sought shelter in the ekal mandir temple for the night and i was getting ready to get into my bed. Sleep was beckoning to me like an old friend and i wanted to fall into it’s warm embrace. As my heavy eyelids closed, there was a loud bang on the door and I woke up startled. I saw someone standing outside the door. He said the swamiji of the temple had asked him to share the room with me tonight.

Without any choice I let him in. He quickly set up his bed on the floor using the spare mattresses, and after finishing his business in the toilet, he changed his clothes and was about to sleep. I offered to switch so he could sleep on the bed but he refused. He politely asked if I would let him keep the light on for a few more minutes because he wanted to read some verses before sleeping. I said of course and, shut my eyes desperate to get sleep. I woke up a few minutes later knowing that my sleep was ruined and hence pulled out my kindle. I was hoping to get in a few pages of “Astronaut’s guide to life on earth” before i went back to sleep.

The traveler seeing that i was awake asked me where I was from. After hearing my story (the cycling trip included), he told me about him. Born to a rajput family in rajasthan, he had businesses across the state of rajasthan.

So, why the special mention for this gentleman? Because he had recently been to pakistan!! I was shocked when he told me that!! At first i asked him if he crossed over the border but he laughed and said he had obtained a visa to to go to pakistan.

The interesting thing is, there is a “mata ka mandir” in Balochistan and you need to go through pakistan to reach the temple. There is a sect of the rajputs in rajasthan to whom, this temple is very significant and each year, they are given special visa permits to visit the temple. He explained vividly about the security arrangements pakistan government had organized for their pilgrim group and how they traveled by road to balochistan.

We had a long chat about the kind of foods available there and the culture of the peoples of pakistan. He also said that he made it a point to come to ekal mandir after the trip to balochistan in order to pay respects to the swamiji of the ekal maata temple. He said he spent over Rs 100,000 for the trip to balochistan.

I was utterly delighted to stumble upon this lesser known fact about hindu pilgrims going to pakistan!!!

Rann of Kutch-7 (The Arrogant Atheist, Part-1)

I’m one of those ardent followers of Richard Dawkins. I harbor contempt and scorn against all religions and, in the past, i have had some fierce debates with theists and I have on many occasions, overstepped the line and have mocked them too!

So, on 25th-Dec-2014, i was making my way to the Ekal Rann on my cycle. I was told in the morning that, there was a famous Ekal Mata mandir just before the starting of the Rann and I would be offered accommodation and food there. Without thinking too much, I was making a bee-line for the temple armed with a haphazard map that a local had drawn for me.

It was 5:30 PM in the evening and stopped at the village before Chobari (again, I can’t remember the name anymore 😦 ) for some tea and lip smacking kutchi dabeli. As it was winter time, i knew the sun would set pretty early and I still had around 30 kms to go to reach the temple. In the anticipation of riding in the dark, I fitted out my tail lamp onto the seat post and i snapped my headlmp just below my helmet. After the short break, I got on the saddle, shifted my chains onto the bigger dogs and started mashing away. I knew it was a costly mistake to make but I was racing against time now.

At 7:00 PM, it had become pitch dark and I was still fighting it out on the cycle. It was the first day of my cycling trip and my quads and bums were complaining loudly to me. I took a small water break at the side of the road and a few moments later, I heard a voice behind me. Surprised and a litte scared, I turned around to see a local villager standing just feet away from me. My heart beats rose by a few notches when i saw him holding a sickle in his hand!! Since he had no torch on him, I could not see him coming. He asked me if i was ok. When i said yes, he asked why am i riding in the dark? I said i had started my day late and hence, was running behind schedule. He said I still had 10 kms to go to reach the mandir and then said, “Agar andhere mein chalna mushkil ho raha ho toh, aap mere ghar par aaj rat ruk sakte hain. Appka khana aur bistar ka suvidha ho jaayega. Kal subah app mandir ke liye nikal sakte ho” (If you are having trouble riding in the dark, you can stay at my place. I’ll take care of your food and bedding. You can ride to the temple early in the morning). I humbled by his offer but, I told him I was grateful for his help but i had to reach the mandir tonight or else, my entire trip schedule would be ruined.
After thanking this villager, I switched on my head lamps, got up on the saddle and started mashing again.

At 7:40 PM, I reached the temple completely exhausted. As i crossed the threshold of the temple campus and entered in with my cycle, the irony of the situation hit me like a truck. This temple here was my final hope of getting accommodation and food for the night. An angry atheist had come knocking on the doors of a temple, an institution he so despised! I smiled inwardly at my own stupidity and made my way to the 2 people sitting just outside of the main temple doors.

The swami-ji of the temple asked me to leave the cycle near the trees and instructed me to first remove my slipper and helmets, wash my feet and hands and then come into the temple premises. Like an obedient child, I did as i was told and went to meet him. As i got into the temple, the swamiji asked me to pay my respects to the ekal mata and i did as I was told without questioning.

As I came out, the swamiji asked what i wanted. I told him I needed accommodation for the night. Without asking any further questions, he asked me to take the room that was right next to his room. He further asked me to get to the kitchen by 9PM for dinner. I thanked him and went straight to my “room” to wash up. I was yearning for a fresh change of clothes and a good hot water bath.

After a filling dinner, I sat outside the room reflecting on the whole situation. I had run away from temples all my life. I wasn’t even sure when was the last time I had entered a temple in my home-town. I had come to the salt deserts hoping to find some peace and solitude and my journey had led me right back into a temple.

For so long, I had poured scorn and hatred and contempt upon “gods” and “religion” and the institution of “temples” and the stupid “theists” who followed them like sheep  and yet, one of those very same temples had unquestioningly and without judgement, provided me with shelter for the night….They never asked me where i was from, they did not ask me my beliefs, they did not ask me my caste or creed..To them I was just a worn out traveler who needed shelter for the night and they provided the same..

Rann of Kutch-6 (The curious waiter)

Dated: 29-Jan-2014

As i started cycling to dhordo from bhuj, I stopped at a road side dhaba for lunch and I was greeted enthusiastically by the waiter. I asked him what he would recommend instead of ordering for something and he recommended Alu parantha with a smile. I ordered for 2 of them. A few minutes later, he came with steaming hot paranthas with a solid block of butter on top. Delighted, I attacked the paranthas like a hungry wolf would attack his prey. I must have had a lusty smile on my face as I gorged on the paranthas because, as i finished up my second one, the waiter brought out another steaming hot parantha (this time stuffed with paneer and another huge block of butter on top!!!!!!!!). Surprised, i said I had ordered for only 2, but he shushed me and unloaded the steaming beauty onto my plate. Not thinking too much, I attacked the third one as well. Unbeknown to me, as I finished my third parantha, he had taken the 2 water bottles out of my bicycle and filled it up with fresh aqua guard water.

When i got my bill, i was shocked to see that i was charged only for 2 paranthas and 1 block of butter. When i pointed this out to the waiter, he smiled at me and said, ” Sir, pata nahi kyon, aap ko dekh ke, mujhe laga ki aap dil ke saaf aadmi ho. Aapko cycle pe aate hue dekh ke bahut accha laga mujhe, issiliye, yeh teesra paratha mere taraf se hai, bas aap owner ko mat batana”
(Sir, looking at you, i felt you have a clean heart. ( :/ ) I felt good seeing you cycling and that’s why, the third paratha is from me. Just don’t tell the owner).
Further, he said, “aap bilkul aaram se dhordo nikal jaana, aap ke liye, maine cycle mein rakha hua dono paani ka bottle bhi bhar diya hai” (you have a good ride to dhordo, I have filled both the water bottles that were kept in your cycle).
I managed to utter my thanks to him and shook his hand and got onto my cycle and rode off totally confused. (he point blank refused my offer of a tip!)

This bihari waiter working in a small dhaba in bhuj outmatched any hospitality experience I had had in any five star hotel with his genuine smile and warmth.

Rann of Kutch-5

Dated: 29-Dec-2014

4.30 AM in the morning…the temperature must have been a chilly 10-12 degrees…I pushed my cycle alone through the heart of dholavira village. I was headed for the bus stop. Silence had descended upon the village like a heavy veil.There was not a soul in sight and it was pitch dark.

Suddenly the silence was pierced by the shrill barking of a dog. As one dog started, the entire pack in the village woke up and started howling as one fierce unit against me. Because of the darkness I couldn’t even know if there was a dog nearby. Riding on the cycle was out of the question as both the tires were punctured. I managed to reach the bus stop with shaking knees and immediately sat on a bench and switched off my headlamp not wanting to disturb anyone anymore. But the dogs wouldn’t let up on me.

After 5 AM, one couple and another young man came to the bus stop. I was relieved knowing that I had not missed the bus after all. The GSRTC bus rolled into the village at 5:15 AM (bang on time) and came to a halt at our stop. The young man in question (Hitesh), offered to help me get the cycle to the top of the bus. I gladly accepted his help and after 10 minutes of huffing and puffing, we managed to get the cycle on top and tied it down to the railings. As, we got down, I thanked hitesh for his help and boarded the bus.

The cold was becoming brutal due to the fast moving bus and we had to ensure all the windows were shut tightly. In between my bouts of fitful sleep, I managed to chat with Hitesh. It turns out he had watched me cycle slowly through Balesar on my way to dholavira 2 days ago. I showed him all the pics I had taken in the Rann and he told me all about his life in kutch. He had gone to bombay in search of work and fortune a few years ago but he came back disillusioned. He said he hated the sheer size of the crowd in mumbai. “Sir, wahan toh khane ke liye,muthne ke liye, bill bharne ke liye, sab ke liye line lagtha hai…Paagal ho gaya tha mein” (Sir, you have to stand in a line in mumbai to eat, to shit and to pay bills, I was going mad). He had come back to dholavira and now ran a shop in Balesar.

As the bus stopped in Rapar for early morning chai/nashta, I got down with Hitesh and he ordered tea and biscuits on my behalf. The amusing thing to note here is, the tea stall was small and hence all passengers in the bus had huddled around and the tea vendor had distributed saucers to everyone. After getting their tea, people started slurping away. It was an ludicrous scene!! 8 to 10 grown men all making a ruckus by loudly slurping tea from the saucer!!! For a moment, i was nauseated by the sound but, a few moments later, I joined in the fun and slurped away!

I made sure to pay for the both of us and we boarded the bus again and i went to sleep. After some time, the bus stopped again for another breakfast stop at a major junction and here, I need to tell you about the great impromptu bus seat reservation system in rural India. Basically, when a bus stops at a major junction, a lot of people try to get onto the bus hunting for empty seats. But the existing passengers in the bus need to take a break and at the same time would not like to give their seat away!! So what’s the solution? A simple honor system where in, if any object is left on the seat (be it a water bottle, scarf, paper, bag, etc), it means the seat has been taken by prior passengers and no body will touch that seat! It’s a very effective way to save your seat while traveling in crowded buses!

Back to our story, at this second stop, Hitesh casually placed his scarf reserving both our seats and we went out for breakfast. I got my morning fix of parceled khakras (believe me, you’ll not get to eat anything else in the morning in these places!!!!) and I shared those with Hitesh on our bus ride to Bhuj.

It was 11:30 AM by the time we reached Bhuj bus stop. It was noisy and crowded. I felt disoriented for a few seconds (after having spent the last 4 days in the peaceful Ekal Rann and Dholavira, the cacophony was sort of disconcerting!!). Hitesh again came to my rescue and helped me get the cycle down from the bus.

He knew that the tires of my cycle were punctured and so, we set off to find a puncture shop. I kept on insisting to Hitesh that, he needn’t do this and he had already done enough for me but he wouldn’t hear it. After over an hour of searching, we finally found a puncture shop and Hitesh bid me good bye. I thanked him repeatedly for his hospitality and help and he said it was his pleasure. He shared his phone number with me and then we also connected on facebook!

After he left, I took another half hour to convince/bully the cycle shop guy to get my puncture fixed. After a considerable shouting match, he agreed to fix my cycle and after another half hour, I was whizzing past the traffic in bhuj on my way out to Dhordo!