Leh’d it be !

There are some trips that make me run to my laptop and write long blog posts. Actually, most of my trips. And there are some trips, you find it really difficult to put in words. Actually, you do know what to write. But, you hold it inside wondering whether it is the right thing to say. You hold it till it actually really seems like such a long time ago that you can laugh about it. And that’s what I did. I held it for a year.

In all these years of traveling, I had never experienced this. I had always traveled alone or with Roy. At max, with my mom or my best friends. It had never been an unexpected ride. So, how come I’m bringing this up now? Well, its taken me a year. Its taken me so long to actually sit down and write what I feel about the crazy trip to Leh last year. I really cannot label the holiday as backpacking or adventure or bonding with friends or Buddhist trail or anything of that sort. It was a bit of everything.

So, Id successfully returned from my 7 month sojourn in South America and was a little stubborn about not unpacking completely. I hadn’t made up my mind about living out of a backpack vs a normal life a.k.a corporate job + cupboard life.

I jumped at the chance to show an American friend around India. Danny (Firefighter + my Disney tour guide from Florida) wanted to travel to India and I started planning this trip for him. And the list grew. In all ways. What started with a few cities grew into this trip – Mumbai – Agra – Delhi – Amritsar – Pathankot – Dharamshala – Manali – Leh (and more in the Ladakh region) – Delhi – Varanasi – Mumbai. What was first Danny, Roy and me grew into a much bigger list.

So, who joined us? First – Shal, my best friend of all these years and we had never traveled anywhere but to Egmore (to attend college)  or Besant Nagar beach (to bunk college) together. There was this really unique day when we drove to Sriperumbudur to visit our boyfriends who were in Engineering college and the freak college trip to Kodaikanal. Thats it. She was supposed to join me in Brazil for one leg, but her boss came in the way of our travel plans. So, this was a perfect opportunity. Shal hopped in. With 2 weeks off, she decided to join us from the Manali to Delhi leg.

Then came Dnyanada. My ex-colleague from the hair oil company. She had moved from a hair oil company to another large company which had shampoo, washing machine powders, fairness creams et all and was sick of it. She had taken up Buddhism. She loved to travel. She was on a break. Perfect opportunity again. So, D joined the bandwagon. With all the time in her hands, she decided to join us from the Amritsar to Delhi leg.

Shal invited her friend Meera. But, Meera made a zillion calls to us to figure out whether she would join us in Manali and hang out till Leh or join us in Manali and head back. She called even when she needed to figure out whether to buy a 40 litre backpack or a 60 litre one. All that and she finally made it. Manali to Leh leg.

Who came next? An old friend from school days, who had pushed off to UK to study and who I finally met in Couchsurfing after all these years – Rahul. Having returned from the UK and with visa issues (not being able to get back to the UK), he was homesick (for UK) and desperately needed a holiday. He was unemployed (like most of us) and loved to travel. He was on a budget and wanted to climb any rock he crossed. With time in the hands, Delhi to Delhi leg it was for him.

So, Rahul was in couchsurfing and he found this other couchsurfer who wanted to travel. American student, on a project in India, she was more Indian than Rahul was. Enters Kassia. Armed with a beautiful Canon camera (that she loved to manhandle), Kassia missed the train to Amritsar and landed up joining us from the Manali to Delhi leg.

Lesson 1 If you manage to find 8 different personalities, ensure you are not the travel guide.

So, it all went wrong from the word Go.

I booked the train from Mumbai to Agra for Danny and me. May as well give the American an experience of Indian Railways. And I chose the Holiday special train thinking it would be touristy and go on time. Just the reverse. It was 18 hours late and we slept on VT station platforms in the bloody June heat. Reaching Agra, Danny was already looking like a lobster and I guess not in a mood for Mughal history.

So, the Taj Mahal, which I was visiting for the third time was still splendid for me. However, our brilliant tourism department found a reason to piss me off. They give Danny little sock type things to cover his feet so that he doesnt have to walk in the heat and guess what I’m left with – burning flooring and blisters in my feet. I sprinted around the Taj in the heat and chatted up our tour guide, who ironically owned a shoe factory on the side. So much for enjoying a Wonder of the World.

Reaching Delhi, I remember giving a Video Conference interview from a Reliance Web World in the middle of old Delhi (I landed that job with Red Bull incidentally. I even remember hiding behind the table as I was wearing cargo shorts and did not want my interviewer to think I was too casually dressed. Little did I know about Red Bull then). We then went to Jamma Masjid, which wouldn’t let us in for a bunch of reasons – I was carrying a camera. Danny was wearing shorts. Anyway, we went to the Red Fort and then hung out at a Pub in CP which had waiters dressed like Cowboys.

We had a train to Amritsar that night and Rahul joinedus in the station. After those few days of unbearable heat and just feeling the pressure of having to explain India to Danny myself, it was a relief to have a third person around. And that too, a guy who could talk non-stop about India. I guess they hit it off instantly.

Amritsar was a delight. Roy and Dnyanada flew in and the group became 5. We were being hosted by Narenderjitji, who was a wonderful couchsurfer, who owned a farmhouse. An old ancestral property converted into a farm, it was luxury. That was the best part.

So, we did everything tourists do in Amritsar. Went to the Golden Temple. Ate Parathas at Brothers Dhaba. Drank Lassi. Visited the Jallianwallahbagh place. And let me not forget the evening mela at the Wagah border. Packed it all into one day and tired ourselves out. We debated endlessly about how to get to Dharamshala – whether we should take a direct bus or change trains at Pathankot. It was already difficult to take a unanimous decision. But, in the end, we managed.

We took the local train to Pathankot and then hopped into a State bus to Dharamsala. Reaching Mcleodganj, we walked around for an hour before finding a hostel to sleep. With no proper planning, we landed up with two rooms and poor Dnyanada got a room the size of a cupboard. So, we decided to share rooms. Everyone was way too tired to argue. We decided to reserve that for the next day.

I actually have very little memory of Dharamshala except for Dalai Lama’s residence and Godfather beer. Sounds horrible to put it in the same sentence. But, honestly speaking, I enjoyed the Kingfisher beer (after the Godfather beer) and the Tingmo bread, with the window seat at a small restaurant overlooking prayer wheels. That’s my memory of Dharamshala.
We did make an afternoon trip to Dal Lake. Should I say Dull lake. What made the moment worth it was chatting up the Panwala there who had been at the very spot for almost 3 decades.

We took one of those overnight buses to Manali. Tourist buses. We were the only Indians. It was filled with Firangs and shady bus conductors who asked us whether we wanted a joint. With Old Monk and Coke mixed in Coke 500 ml bottles, we braved the bus journey. There was this time in the wee hours of the morning when the bus had to cross over a part of the road, which was completely under water.

Anyway, reaching Manali, we headed to Drifters Inn – As the name suggests, it is for drifters. Started by a friend, an ex colleague from the same hair oil company (yeah! we all hated hair oil so much). Drifters Inn was the perfect backpacker setup with great food, free internet and comfy beds. We just about got settled into the rooms and Kassia arrived. We had 3 days in Manali and no plans. Just a pit stop to acclimatise. Shal and Meera arrived the next morning and we were finally 8 of us.

I don’t remember what we did on which particular day, but the Manali stop was tiring. In all ways, it was. A full day trek with Danny. Roy dropped out half way and lucky for him, he did. It wasn’t so beautiful out there anyway. That’s what I hate about treks. All that climbing to see what’s going on down hill. Why go up there?

There was a walk to Vashisht, which was on the other side of the river. Rahul disappeared for 2 days doing some rock climbing. We all went to Solang Valley where we saw some people get stuck in Zorbing balls, that lost control due to the wind. At every opportunity, we ate Maggi and drank tea. Shal, Meera and Dnyanada went shopping whenever they had time. I don’t know why I did not. I wish I had.

I remember trying to be a part of everything and not being able to do it. Phew ! There were endless arguments Specifically about the mode of transport between Manali and Leh. Private jeep vs shared bus was mini van et all. Budgets. Stopover preferences. To take in more people or not. Phew !

Over the few days, there were lot more issues. I cried. I screamed. I fought. I can’t believe that I went through all that during a holiday. It seems so trivial to even remember them. But, when they did happen, it seemed really big.

Lesson 2 – If you are travel guide for 8 different people, don’t take it personally when they don’t get along. 

However, we did manage to leave Manali and it took us 36 hours to get to Leh with a stop before Sarchu. The landscapes totally soothed me. Ofcourse, there were debates about whether to stop at Keylong or Sarchu. Oh! How can I forget? There was a 9th person who joined us in this road trip. Eric from the US. He left us after the road trip. I guess even those 36 hours wasn’t something he could take with us. Or, we could take with him.

 What a road trip! If there is one road trip you get to do in your life, let this be the one. From rivers to mountains. Snow to Deserts. Little sheep rearing nomads to mountain Maggi makers. And let me not forget the incredible road signs put up by BRO – Border Road Organisation. If there is one book you must buy about Road trips, let it be “Peep Peep Don’t Sleep” by Ajay Jain. I would kill the experience for you if I started telling you about those road signs. You need to discover it on your own.

So, we reached Leh. Beautiful beautiful Leh. I had written to a French friend of mine Lydia, who was working in Leh. Married to an Indian guy Vaibhav, who loved to climb, we got wonderful recommendations from them in terms of places to stay, visit and eat at. Leh was an easy ride relative to what we had gone through the past couple of days.

So, we had learnt some group dynamics by then. We split up when we wanted to. We hung out together when we had to. The guys went climbing. Some of us went to the monastery. Then, the girls went shopping. We tried to go watch Dhoom 2 in a old movie hall. All this over and above the classic Ladakh stuff – Visiting the Leh Palace, Thiksey Monastery, Shanti Stupa et all in Leh. A day trip to Pangong, which was super super tiring and another 2 day trip to the Nubra Valley. Camel rides and nonexistent hot water springs, I guess we had it covered.

Amidst all the tension, I really did forget to enjoy the beauty of Leh. I guess my photo taking obsession does have its benefits. I often went back to my pictures over the past year and wondered why I was not gaping at the brown blue contrasts of the sky and the Leh Palace instead of sulking over bad coffee. Ofcourse, there were some incredible moments of joy. Like the time we saw the dancing monks and the kid monks serve tea. The time we clicked pictures of the old ladies selling vegetables in the Leh market. Many such moments. 

That’s why today, I’m a little confused about what my approach to travel was a year ago. I was missing the element of spontaneity that I had with me in Latin America. I was missing the freedom to take decisions only for myself. I was missing the joy of meeting a new person everyday and just hanging out till it was hunky dory. I was getting tied down by all the planning and by all the pressure that I had put on myself to make everyone happy. I just killed it for myself and for others too.I’m just hoping that all 8 of us have moved on and can laugh at our trip together.
Lesson 3 (for myself) – If you are the kind of person to take things personally, you need to sing the Indian version of the Beatles song “Leh’d it be”. 

 So, its a year now. Shal just sent an email last week reminding us that its been a year. Our lives have all changed so much. Shal got married (big change). Dnyanada is a Media honcho (like always). Americans went back to America. British at heart Indians settled in India (and found a marketing consulting job – giving lot of Gyaan). Meera has been writing a book about the Churches of the World. I accepted Bombay as home and finally unpacked my bag. Roy travels where the Ninja does. All that and more…. But, one thing in common, none of us have fallen out of love with travel.

11 thoughts on “Leh’d it be !

  1. How I wish I could backpack with you and Jeet sometime in the near future. That is my Dream now. It will happen. Love the stories you write.

  2. Hey I came across your blog while hunting for some info on places. Your blog is awesome…and more so your backpacking stories. I am copywriter and travel lies in the closets of my mind. But I do manage to trip whenever I can. Your blog is a source of rare info for people like me. And the best part is that it isn’t the usual ‘Package Toured’ experiences. It was really fun to read through. 🙂

  3. Hey I came across your blog while hunting for some info on places. It was fun reading through…and more so your backpacking stories. 🙂

  4. Looks like you still had a great time with all the interesting things happening. I am sure you must have had a wonderful experience out there in all these beautiful places!!!

  5. Hey… Thanks for recommending my book. Glad readers are enjoying it as much as I enjoyed putting it all together. Cheers… Ajayhttp://kunzum.com

  6. hey, i think yoou must be confusing it with some other trip. It was one of the funnest trips, and all thanks to this super generous woman called Appu, who got us all together. I even get nostalgic about Eric… you didnt know about our secret night rendez vous did you. hahah… i gave him some advise on talin it easy. he even took my email id, to mail us pictures… hmm Eric where are they. when and where are we travelling next appu?

  7. Awesome, Aparna! Definitely an accurate account of the trip. And you’re being way too hard on yourself, you did an amazing job putting it all together. I know that when I personally look back at the trip, the squabbles and arguments and to-be-expected group tensions are only a tiny tiny part of all the great memories I have. I linked you on my blog, too, btw: http://kassiakarr.com/post/568177941/my-friend-shalini-in-india-sent-an-e-mail-to-theHope our paths cross at some point when I’m back in India in June! Maybe I’ll actually, finally make it to Mumbai. 😉 – K

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