Backpacking through New York

Prologue

I had been in New York for about a month, and the city, I discovered is beautiful.
Something is always happening, and somewhere or the other there’s always
something you’re welcome to join. But there’s only so much you can take of the
sky being cut up in straight-edged pieces. Glowing windows of skyscrapers make
poor proxies for stars. I wanted to get out and go somewhere. Someplace where
billboards don’t tell you what you need.

I needed money for the trip. Some essentials needed to be bought. I had brought
my violin with me, so I decided to busk. I had jammed with two street musicians
before, and I was kind of teetering on the edge of doing it or not doing it (I guess
I’m getting older faster than I expected). In the end, I decided I’ll try. If I could raise
enough money I’d go.

She had red hair and green eyes. I had set up my case besides the footpath on the
west side of times square. I was playing for some time, nothing was happening. She
gave me two dollars and a kind smile. I will never forget her, she had made me
believe everything would be possible.

When people walk by without noticing you, busking is hard. When people walk by
carefully ignoring you it’s harder. And when strangers stand to listen for a song after
song, it’s elation. After three days I had enough to go out and buy all the supplies I
needed, the fourth day was for precautionary measures. I only got two dollars that
day, one from a man who just wanted to take a photo with the violin, and one from
a man who wanted me to play so that he could let his girlfriend listen over the
phone. That alone was worth coming out to play after being tired as hell.

Friday

 

 

I had decided to set out for Harriman state park quite early. It was only forty miles
away, but the terrain would be hilly, and I had never cycled that far on hilly ground.
The cycle I had was a pretty low standard thing by American standards (the
cheapest one in Walmart), and luckily for me, Americans have pretty high
standards. The gears worked well, the machine was a fine one. The only way the
cost-cutting could be felt was by the seat cutting into my butt.

I woke up exactly when I had planned to, decided the bed was quite comfortable,
and sleep would be a good way to get rid of the pain from various parts of my body
(the kind of pain that comes from using a laptop bag that looks good for lugging
around heavyweights yesterday). Eventually, I woke up again for the final time and
started out at ten.

I made my way out of Manhattan, through the little hills of Harlem onto the George
Washington bridge over the Hudson River. I could see the New York skyline on one
side, and the New Jersey sky one the other. There’s something sad about seeing
reflections of clouds on the glass walls of skyscrapers, and I tried to get deeper into
New Jersey as fast as I could.

On my way, I encountered a submarine left in a river as a showpiece. Just a side
effect of having war-obsessed governments I guess.

As I cycled up steep hills, I was thankful for each cloud that came to give even a few
minutes of shade. I sat down on sidewalks when I got tired, under the largest trees
and softest grass I could find. I kept checking how far I was from my destination.
Eventually, I went into saddle river county Park. By this time I was tired and hungry,
so I sat down on a bench under a tree and opened my first can of soup. Soon I arrived
at Rochelle Park. Again I was tired and sought out a nice bench to lie down on. The
rucksack on my bag was heavy from carrying three day’s worth of meals in cans.
I lay down, under the shade of a huge tree beside a pond. A hoard of ducks was
swimming lazily in the rippling water. There were trees of various shades of green,
and a deep blue sky above. A light breeze blew, and suddenly it struck me. I had
been asking the most irrelevant question I could have. Trying to judge how far I
was, was a useless venture. I was exactly where I wanted to be, in the middle of
vast beauty. I had a tent, I could sleep anywhere. I had a stove and cans of food, I
could eat anywhere. Sometimes having a destination is a burden. The road was
enough.

I stuck my face into the Park’s fountain, washed off the sweat and the salt, filled up
my bottles, and started off again on the winding road. On my right was a little
country river, over my head sometimes a green canopy, sometimes the sunny sky,
on my left were fields of grass. I had never given much attention to how grass
smells.

Now I sat beside the river, felt the sweat evaporate off my skin, cooling me down,
and took in as much of the grassy smelling air as I could. I’d reach Harriman before
dark, I was sure. Sometimes getting tired is a good thing, you sit down to feel things
you would have left unseen.

Some way down the road I sat down at a little bakery and drowned out my
tiredness with coffee and a crumb bun. This establishment was run by school-going
people working part-time, in a town where people know each other’s names.
I continued up, got happy by the road signs declaring north. At one point I decided
to buy some beer. All the uphill work warranted a celebration with beer. I went into
the liquor store on the other side of the road. The man at the counter, it turned out
was from Kerala. I said I knew that the Malayalam word for rain is Mara, and I
remembered only this because rain is one of the most important things to me. (I
had set out some time ago to learn Telugu to talk to my half Telugu girlfriend who
doesn’t talk to anyone in that language to the point that when people try very hard
to hold a Telugu conversation with her she replies that she can’t speak the tongue,
in Telugu. My teacher sometimes threw in Malayalam words because she knew
that too. Learning a language is easy when it’s the language some of your muses
speak. The thing is, to say the word for water, a little bit of tongue-yoga is required,
so I try to practice said tongue yoga when I’m with a Malayalam speaker to see
whether I have made any progress, or am still sounding like someone with his
tongue tied up in a knot. When I learnt that I would actually be away for the entire
Indian academic summer to do an internship in New York, the course of action was
clear. I had to meet Megha before leaving, anyhow. Sitting and planning is easy,
and it’s easier to get caught up in planning. Saumya practically turned me out of
the classroom and I took the first train from Delhi to Kolkata that I could and got
up in the unreserved compartment. Indian state borders were drawn by languages,
and the moment I saw “thapornagar” written in Bengali script on the station
placard, I got elated. It meant I was finally, really really close. I sat by the door and
started singing. At one point I heard a girl talking to someone on the phone in a
beautiful and unknown language. Turned out she was speaking Malayalam. We
sang to each other, and she taught me the word for rain in her language.) Anyway,
the man at the store learned of my intentions of going camping and scooped up as
many water bottles he could with his hands and gave them to me, saying I’ll need
it. The rain did bring me free water.

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Finally, I could see mountains in the distance. Not the road rising up to a solitary hilltop like it was doing before, but mountains spanning my horizon. I felt a new rush
of energy. By now, the sun rays were slanting down.

As I entered the final valley, the valley was cradling the rays of the setting sun like
lovers who know they’ll be separated for a long dark time. The road took a few
turns and disappeared through curtains fireworks of golden dust. I sat down on the
footpath, going through a deep green grass patch. The patchwork was held
together by bright yellow and white flowers.

I reached the last town before going into the park and went into a Dunkin Donuts
store to get some tea. There’s a reason they’re not known for their tea. I tried to
splash water from the tap in their bathroom to as many parts of my body as I could.
I was sure this would be the last thing that even remotely resembles a bath, for the
next two days.

I reached Reeves meadow visitor centre at nine. The sun had gone down long ago,
but there was still about half an hour of sky-light to spare. The visitor centre only
operates on weekends and holidays, so I had decided to get a map from there the
next day, and camp for the night next to it. Camping is only allowed in designated
areas, and the nearest such area was a long way away. So, I figured it wouldn’t be
the best idea to camp right next to it and people had written about stealth camping
in the park on the internet.

I went off into the trail leading into the forest to find a nice spot for pitching my
tent. A group coming down the hill said there was a nice camping site about ten
minutes away. After more than ten minutes I realized they were in pretty high time
dilation, and I really didn’t want to climb the whole mountain in the dark. I picked
the trail out by shades of darkness (one of the most precious lessons from Adrita is
letting your eyes adjust to darkness rather than blind yourself with a flashlight),
crossed two streams, and finally found a spot with small plants. I need a place
exactly like this, because I had neither a sleeping mat nor a sleeping bag, and a cold
hard ground isn’t a particularly lucrative bed. I quickly pitched the tent in the
darkness broken by my phone’s light while avoiding getting bit by mosquitoes (a
practice perfected by pitching tents in University for night vigils and protests).

This was a new tent, and after getting in I discovered there were some parts which
I had no idea where to put. As long as the tent was successfully staying up though,
this wasn’t an issue to get caught up with.

I lay down for some time, too tired to do anything else.

When I had come in, so had the darkness, and with it, fireflies took the place of the
yellow flowers. The valley grounds were filled with them. Now, as I sat in my tent
performing a dinner while watching stars come out slowly and fill the sky from the
roof window of my tent, they flew all around. With the soft glow of the skies as a
backdrop, the heads of trees arching up over me became characters and started a
grand theatre.

I didn’t want to use my used food can as bait for anyone going hungry in the forest.
I also had to pee, but going out would mean sacrificing blood to mosquitoes. Solved
the two problems in one shot.

I went to sleep that night to the sight of fireflies, stars and dancing trees, with
the sounds of the small gushing river, the sound of leaves talking with the wind,
and what can only be described as sounds of the forest.

Saturday

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I woke up feeling fresh and happy. I thought I’d use the river water to wash last
night’s cans (as I’d have to carry them out with me) and my teeth and face in the
stream. The water, I found out was warm enough to bathe in. There were tiny
waterfalls over small rocks to take a shower.

I got into the river, bathed in water and dried myself off in the river of sunlight
following the river through the forest. A man quite serious asked whether I had
caught any fish.

I came up, cooked my breakfast on my newly acquired pocket stove sitting by the
river, packed up and left for the visitor centre. I was in need of a map (how to read
a map is a life lesson I had got from my father a few years ago while hurtling down
a desert highway late in the night in the exact opposite direction we were
supposed to be going because I had read the GPS wrong. Later the art was
perfected with the help of Madhur while we tried to make sense of our school field
trip).

On the way down, I was joined by a seventy-year-old Korean man (the same guy who’d
asked me about fishing). He used to come with his children, now they are too old
to come every weekend and he’s still not old enough to not come every weekend.
He told me stories of the Korean War, taught me taekwondo tricks (he’s a black belt
second Dan), gave marriage advice, and said goodbye.

The woman at the visitor centre, upon being asked about the chances of a bear
attack said she’d never heard of one here, and quite cheerfully added I might be
the first one (“though I don’t like to use that word if you do something stupid you
might get attacked. Else the bear will go about doing bear business, and you will
just see it” is probably the most politically correct way of feeding stupid people to
bears). She warned me of rattlesnakes equally cheerfully, marked out a trail for me
on the map and sent me off.

I was trying to get a view of the NYC skyline from a distance in the night, I had seen
people recommending that on the internet. On a more personal note, a long time
ago my first girlfriend had asked for a story, and I was painting a picture of being
on top of a hill watching the blinking skyline of a city in the distance. I had been
imagining the famous New York skyline that time.

I set off on the trail, tracked it sometimes by following boot marks of previous
trekkers. The park service works to keep things as natural as possible, so it sets trailblazers only in the most confusing of places, keeping the rest of the trail as a puzzle
to solve. Unfortunately, some trailblazers get lost. I lost the trail, figured that since
I wanted a clear view, it had to be at the top of the mountain. I made my way
through natural log Bridges and rock falls, through the woods to the top and
realized that I had climbed a totally wrong mountain.

 

It was actually wrong to call it wrong, it had a pretty nice view, just not the one I
was looking for. I sat there for some time, watched the lush green valleys around
me, and a sole eagle ranging the skies over the mountains. It was much better to
sit in the shade and enjoy the sun-soaked beauty all around than worry about being
in the wrong place just because I had set someplace as the right one. In any case, I
had a map and a compass. I’d never get lost.

I made my way back to the point where I had lost the trail and started out for a
different mountain. Some way in, sure enough, there came another junction where some tracking needed to be done. Too many mosquitoes tried to get friendly, so I
decided to change track again, towards mountains with more civil mosquitoes.
There was no point in trying to spend a night looking at glowing city lights to fulfil
half of a dream. That was a story, texted to a lover a long time ago. It would be a
wastage of the mountains to chase remnants of a dream around. I had left the city.
No point in trying to look at it especially when I had the chance to see other things.
I lay down on the sidewalk at the visitor centre (the one place I was sure there
wouldn’t be any mosquitoes in the day time), cooked lunch, and watched the somber
trees of the mountains rustling in the breeze. And to think I almost went after
something I decided to leave behind…

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Half the day was gone, and I started on the trek up to pine meadow lake. This was
a well-travelled route and proved to be quite easy to track. I steadily made my way
up the mountain, and I could see the tops of the trees spacing out. And then there
it was. My clear blue mountain lake.

That first glimpse was an amazing feeling, to see the brown path bordered by deep
green trees, leading up to the blue-green lake while the skies prepared for sunset.

I came upon a few swimmer/ sunbathers, discussed campsites with them and went
off to the other side. There were cliffs, and I wanted to camp in a place with the
best view.

I reached the place and came upon a group of campers. One of them came up and
said they’re ok with sharing the space with me. I said I’ll look around for other
places and if I don’t find a place I like I’ll come back and set up camp on one corner.
That corner turned out to be the best after a little scouting.

I pitched the tent under a tree, on some moss and rocks, as close as I could to the
cliff without getting on bare rock. Then I went to find out where people were going
to the lake from.

There was a sweet spot to go swimming from, once you climbed down a few rocks
of the cliff face. Or you could jump right in. I decided to check the water first.
I went in and found the water to be quite warm. I dipped and swam a bit to adjust
my body to the temperature.

She was in the water before me. Her eyes were bluer than the lake around her,
softer than the sky above. Sunlight sparkled off her sunset-coloured hair floating
below the water. She asked me if I wanted to dive. I wanted to and had never done
it before. She said to start with the little rock. I did that and decided to move to the
higher rock.

And there I was, at the edge of a cliff, trying to jump into the lake below. I got to
the edge saw there were some rocks to clear below, and went back further in.
From the water, Nadine kept giving me advice and inspiration. A party was going
on at the cliff beside me, they also joined in on the inspiration. I ran to the edge
and stopped. Reasons for this being a bad idea were racing through my mind. My
feet were tired from the strain of the two days before. My ankles may not have
enough strength to give the final push. I might cramp at the edge. My heart was
beating fast in my chest. Yeah, I had a whole list of why not to jump. And I had one
reason to jump. I wanted to. A guy came up, I asked him are you going to jump, he
said “what’s that?” while jumping off.

I had one reason.

I wanted to. I ran. I got to the edge and jumped.

The rush of falling, falling, falling and everything whooshing past my eyes and then
hitting the water with a splash, going in deep down, the water engulfing me,
slowing me down to a stop and then raising me up faster and faster till I burst out
above the surface…

That was some experience.

I pushed the hair out of my face, swam around a bit, taking in the scenery. I jumped
two more times and came back up to join the party on the rocks.

The man who’d given me the final bit of courage was Sean. He had been walking
the Appalachian trail for more than three months, walked over 700 miles. We
exchanged travel stories while drying ourselves off in the sunlight on the clifftop.
I went back to my tent to cook something, I was hungry. I was just setting up the
stove and a can when one of the people sharing the campsite came up and invited me
to join their fire. She was Katya, from Russia. There was Tom, from Ukraine. He had first told me I could set up camp with them if I wanted to (and that Ukrainian girls
are beautiful). There was Anastasia (Ukrainian girls are beautiful), and Waseem,
from Belarus.

We shared the warmth of the log fire, sausages, roasted vegetables and smores.
I sat on a piece of rock and watched golden and pink clouds float above in the skies.
I watched the lake change colour from sky blue to green to deep blue to grey to
black. I watched till the skies turned an almost black shade of blue. I watched two
bolts of lightning roll through the sky encased by our valley. Leaves rustled in the
distance.

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I went inside the tent for a bit. A man and his dog had been playing fetch with a
stick, on the other side of the lake. They were waiting for two people (they knew
them, were not sure if they were friends, met once camping, and once in a bar) to
camp with but they were nowhere to be found. They came over to our side to look
for the people who were supposed to be there. Sean and Nadine were camping a little
way down from my spot, I went over to see what was happening there. They had
also set up a fire, and the man with the dog was there too.

Patrick had come trail running, had no gear to camp with (only a shirt, a short, and
shoes), so he was taking in the fire’s warmth as much as he could. Buster lay under
the warm outside end of a log feeding the campfire. I invited them to sleep in my
tent if he couldn’t find his friends.

I went back to my spot, and finally took out the packet of m&m I had brought for
snacking or to use as an emergency source of energy (Soutrik had a bar of dark
chocolate when we had gone on our first long-distance cycling trip. That bar saved
us in desperate times. Chocolate is magic! 😉 ). I shared that with my newly made
friends. We sat on the cliff and shared the beer I had brought.

Tom suggested we go swimming. After some time, Katya gave the ultimatum, it had
to be now or never. By now Tom was unsure, but I definitely wanted to go in the
lake, and that spirit spread well enough.

Katya went in first, I followed her soon. The sky was black, and the stars were out. I was
there, floating in a vast deep black mountain lake, tops of dark trees going up all
around into the black sky splashed generously with silver stars. We were swimming in the starlight and the faint glow of the sky, Katya was telling me Russian stories
of the stars we were under.

We dried ourselves by the campfire and lay down on the rocks. It was storytime.
The conversation around me was in Russian, Katya translated bits and pieces for
me. There’s amazing comfort in lying down surrounded by friends who I didn’t even
know a few hours ago and sharing the stars. I didn’t need to know the language to
share the conversation.

Sunday

I had woken up in the middle of the night to the sound of wind rushing through the
upper level of my tent, shaking it’s walls, shaking the treetops above. I simply made
a burrito of myself in my raincoat to stop the cold. The stars were beautiful. I
couldn’t afford to put up the rain fly. Too many stars were at stake.

I woke up to the golden early morning light, coming from an intense clear sky, and
being filtered through bright green and yellow leaves dancing and twirling, pouring
in through the roof of my tent.

I had a long way to go home, but I couldn’t leave this place so easily. I owed my
friends goodbye. I owed this place my senses.

I decided to go swimming one last time. A Spanish group said the water was warm,
and cloud shadows were cold. I swam around, taking in the view of a new day being
born.

Nadine was also up, setting up a fire to make tea. I dried myself off by the fire and
her warmth.

Patrick had decided to sleep in an emergency blanket by the fire. I offered to cook
him breakfast. He said he’d rather not eat, saying “what do they call it? Yeah
fasting. I heard it’s good for you”. I gave buster a dog biscuit I had picked up from
the visitor centre (there were enough to bring home for my dogs even if I ate some).
They left for the way down after a while. Buster insisted on some more fetch.

I packed up my stuff, said goodbye to everyone and everything that had made the
place my home for the night, and started the trek down.

Some clouds came up and gave some rain. The air was cleared up, and I rushed
down the way that had taken so long to go up.

I stopped at an ice cream bar by the highway and had foot-long ice cream, listening
to country songs playing over the speakers. Kids gave me judgmental looks for
consuming ice cream as long as their hands. I watched the black road stretching
out. This was freedom of the wild blue skies above, distilled into two lanes for
travellers.

Fresh sunlight was out again. The trees sprayed down rainwater from their leaves
in the wind. I stopped at the places where I’d stopped when going up, to tell the
people I’d made it.

I reached the Hudson far too soon. I lay down on a footpath to make up for gained
time.

The last little bit home is always the hardest. I went into Starbucks to get some
coffee. The man at the counter gave me coffee in the largest cup. He had been
sitting outside with me for some time, I had let out a tired aaaaaah, he said agreed,
I laughed. “You laughed at a bad joke, I can give you some free coffee”. Maybe it
was just the kindness in that cup, but it was the best coffee I’d ever had.

I took to the road. The clouds were catching fire. I rolled into Manhattan, whizzing
past golden streetlamps. I had done it. An entire trip, out of my own effort.

Epilogue

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I know what a dollar looks like in cents.

I know the worth of every cent. By the time I started out, I had marks of the strings
cutting into my fingertips, proof I had earned all of it.

I know the weight of every meal. My pack got lighter after each one.

I had gone trekking solo for the first time and did things I had only believed I could.
People had blocked intersections with their cars to let me pass easily. When I was
sitting on a sidewalk by a lonely interstate with a what the hell made me think I
could do this expression on my face, a woman had stopped her car to ask if
everything was all right.

I have gone to sleep to the smell of pinewood fire. I have done things which I
wanted to, was scared to do it too, but I have done it. Maybe, only because
strangers had come up to become friends.

Everything I had done, was possible only because a few people had stopped to step
out from the busy crowd and gave me a little money. Every thank you I said, was of
pure gratefulness.

I have cycled shirtless for miles, felt every bit of the world around me. I have walked
barefoot in the mountain top.

Maybe I’ll see them on some trail again someday. I’ll always remember Nadine’s
simple inspiration, Sean’s easygoing wildness, Waseem’s quiet presence, Ana’s
sparkling warmth, Tom’s infectious cheerfulness.

I’ll remember Katya’s kindness? Friendship? I don’t know what to call it. Something.

I’ll remember everything.

I wouldn’t say it was an out of the world experience. It was in this world, and that’s
perhaps the beauty of it.

Pedalling My Way To Shimla

Prologue

The stares I was getting were priceless. I had ridden into a petrol pump to ask for oil – on my bicycle. After the initial shock, the guy in charge decided it’s better to just sell me the lubricant I wanted than to investigate the issue further.

There were three of us in the hostel common room. I was trying to apply my newly acquired knowledge about bike adjustment. Akash was wearing surgical gloves (which I had lifted from some lab to make balloons) to save himself from grease. Adrita was in charge of the music and providing me with a lap to keep my head on when I needed to work from underneath the bike. I wasn’t leaving because I didn’t like the home I have.

November 3, 2018

I’m not brave enough to take a bath on a winter morning. Especially if I plan to leave by 5. It takes enough determination to just get out of bed. I had taken care of that the night before. A little walk on the roof, however, was enough to get me excited. Loyal to the traditions of my university, I started two hours late.

The weather was perfect. Light grey clouds softened the sun’s rays. I navigated through the narrow streets of North Delhi. Modernity has been thrust upon these streets. At one point, Cars, bikes, men all got tied up in a deadlock because of a Bullock cart up ahead – the bullock seemed to appreciate the importance of leisure and insisted on enjoying his morning walk.

The Delhi traffic proved to be sufficient exercise to get me hungry. I stopped at a dhaba selling puri. They refused to keep an eye on my cycle while I ate inside. A man gleefully informed me that a scooter had been stolen just a few days ago. He looked like a kingpin of some stolen scooter empire. He waved a cheery goodbye to the dhaba owner and sped off on his scooter. The people at the dhaba brought out a chair and table for me to sit outside. They have some soft spot for cyclists I guess. They even gave me a five rupee discount.

I made it past the Ghazipur landfill mountains, and on to the highway. I felt a little rush. A lot of time on my hands, and a lot of road before my wheels. What more could I have asked for…

The Haryana border presented itself. The border, more than being visible, is audible. Haryanvi people replace every N with a R. With a vengeance.

Haryana has golden yellow dust. It was on the road, in the air, everywhere. Sun seeped through the clouds and lit up the dust flying all around. The whole atmosphere was a golden grey.

For lunch, I rode into a drive-through Burger King. The car drivers gave me enthusiastic best wishes. The guy at the counter was pretty nonchalant. He was only concerned with his side of the window and sending burgers out from it.

Eventually, I came to an empty shop. It was a simple tea stall. A storefront, a little bed, a bench made out of a yellow back panel of a truck, with the word stop written on it in red cursive. It was the perfect place to lie down a bit.

Lying down, I could see the sky through gaps in the tin roof. Dust moved on my skin. I watched clouds moving in the sky. I felt like a desert. Free, like dust, like clouds, like time.
I heard a plopping sound behind me. True to my mother’s worldviews, I assumed it to be burglars coming to steal all my belongings. I was pleasantly disappointed to find only a lizard.

The light remained the same all throughout the day. Just my shadow shifted from left to right. A little after sunset, I reached a little tea shop. The man there made sure I drank enough water, washed my face. He also offered to let me sleep in the local Temple, and advised me to get married, in that order. Knowing that I’d continue that day, he gave me some Prasad from the Shiva temple to give me the energy to reach safely and surely.

Panipat arrived, with street lights thrust high into the dark night sky. I needed a place to sleep. Deepika informed me that I won’t be allowed into her home since what I have between my legs is dangerous. I found a gurudwara just as a few raindrops made their way down from the sky.

I got a place to sleep in the basement. The music that came from upstairs washed away my tiredness in waves. The food there was definitely one of the best I’ve had.
A rickshaw puller, a saree trader couple, and a traveller shared the night.

November 4, 2018

I started early. It was dark all around. The skies lit up as I cycled. Over a cup of tea, I watched the sun turn red to gold.

The more I moved North, the more the air got clearer and clearer. The leaves of trees, unlike yesterday, were free from dust. With a deep green love, they greeted the golden sun, they greeted me. The dark black highway lay like a happy child in their arms.

Afternoon came, and with it came tiredness. I found a little room with jars of assorted snacks in the front. I went on to ask for tea. The people inside replied that the dhaba behind could serve me tea, but this was a Desi theka, and I’d be welcome to join them for a few drinks. I accepted. They made me a peg of a local orange wine. It is an energy drink, they claimed. It’ll be good for the next ten kilometres, and I’d just have to pee, to get rid of the alcohol in my system. They also opened a bottle of Royal Stag, to give me a royal welcome. They offered to give me an entire bottle for all the tens of kilometres I wanted to go. That offer, I declined. There are some things you don’t take home to have.

We chatted for quite some time. They grieved that many tourists come here, they give judging looks as they pass by. I was the first to join in. We all knew, in all likelihood, we’d never meet each other again. That didn’t stop any of us becoming friends, for the little time together.

It turned out that their claims were true, and the next ten kilometres passed very fast indeed. Not wanting to be high on a highway, I stopped for food. The dhaba had hammock beds for tired souls. I lay down for a few minutes and started out again.
The sun started to set. It went down, and I rode under soft pink skies. I felt a strange kind of pride. I had watched this day being born. I had watched it end. And I had felt every second of it. I had lived every second of it. This was my day.

Bright neon signs screamed out from Zirakpur. Dust and traffic jam engulfed me. I desperately needed some gloves and cycling pants. My cycle was turning out to literally be a pain in the ass. By the time I had acquired the newly developed necessities, it was a little past nine. According to the distance on the map, it’d take me at least an hour to reach Chandigarh. Yesterday I’d learnt that Gurudwaras close gates at ten, and serve food earlier. Though Mannat was nice enough to help, she couldn’t find any other nice people to let me stay for the night for free. It made no sense to go on. After all, plans are only skeletons.

I decided to sleep at the nearest gurudwara but figured I’d have to eat outside. There was a burger king, and they do fill your stomach without emptying your pocket. I collected my food, but drive-throughs are designed to serve cars, so they just give paper packets – no carry bag to carry the food. I sat in the parking lot, and gulped down my meal in the light of headlamps of cars, and rushed off to the gurudwara I had picked out. It turned out they did not have sleeping facilities.

It was just ten O’clock now. I started off in despair for the next gurudwara. Zirakpur by the highway looks like a first world metropolitan. The further I went inside, the more it became a third world village. All the world’s merging into one another.

I sped frantically through unknown village streets. Finally, I found the gurudwara. There was a man with an orange turban, dressed in white. His long white beard was flowing, and glowing in the grey light of the urban night sky. I’ll never forget the relief I felt in the kindness of his voice when he accepted me inside. With motherly care, he asked me to have food. Surprised, I asked how I’d get food that late. It’s a gurudwara, he said – “we always have food”.

The sleeping facility here was a room, and I was instructed to keep my cycle in the room itself. The dinner was the most comforting ever. I had dust all over me, even my beard had become white with it. The bathroom was a tin shade room just opposite the temple. It had a row of taps for everyone to bathe together. It was twelve thirty. The weather was cold, the water colder. I proceeded to bathing. A sixty-something sardarji joined me. Seeing my efforts and care in washing myself, he kept exclaiming “wah”! It was sufficient encouragement.

I slept well.

November 5, 2018

I woke up and was served the tastiest breakfast and tea. I couldn’t find the underwear I’d hung out to dry last night. On learning of my loss, sardarji offered me a towel, and then a drawer. I was free to choose from army surplus and forgotten belongings of other travellers. I declined. Someone much more in need of such things would come this way I figured. I have enough.

I started out and got the first glance of the mountains. There were little hills in Chandigarh. A little later I was at the same level as their tops. Delhi to Panipat is flat. Panipat to Chandigarh is an elevation you can’t see, but feel. Today I saw the road rising up ahead. A group with a broken down car stopped me. They needed water, their car was overheating. A little earlier I had stopped at a restaurant. I need to use the bathroom and have tea. It was a restaurant made exclusively for the purpose of home deliveries, but they made tea for me. They also gave me a bottle of water to help me on the way. So I had enough water to help others on the way.

The road started winding upwards. The sky kept getting bluer at every turn. Brown red trees appeared against the deep blue sky like dark red lipstick on a pale face. Sometimes I got tired of going up and up. But at each turn, the view of dark green valleys below covered in grey-blue mist, with a river glowing in the sunlight gave me more than enough energy to keep going.

I reached the Himachal border. I couldn’t keep a crazy smile off my face. I didn’t even try to. By the time I got off the highway, and on to the old Kasauli road, it was afternoon.

Old Kasauli road was built by the British. There’s a much more efficient highway now, and that’s the path everyone takes. This road meanders through little villages and mountains. The traffic I encountered was some local man on a bike in five minutes, cars in ten. And that was the peak load.

I stopped at a tea stall. One man dramatically warned me of burglars. Another, not wanting to appear any less of an advisor warned me of tigers with equal enthusiasm. I continued.

Sometimes I stopped to listen to the silence. I had simple conversations with all the wildflowers. The sun started to turn red, the valleys below started to become pink. Framed in sombre smokey blue mountains and a red dust road, slowly the sun went down inside layers of a million shades of red.

Darkness soaked in. All I could see was the little spot of light from my headlamp. The road had practically become a trekking trail by now.

Unknown noises from unknown creatures came from the jungle all around. There were cats like mews, even though there were no villages around. I could hear some stream splashing, far away. Sometimes, if you listen closely, there’s a sound from the forest that sounds like the trees are talking. I also heard the rustle of leaves in the wind. I was tired, but I was happy. I was excited. I was thankful to be alive, amidst all this life. I was elated that I existed. Comprehension sometimes becomes ecstasy.

Long later I saw lights glimmering at the peak. I was dead tired after the long journey. Lights had never looked so beautiful. The warm melody of temple bells welcomed me to the outer edges of Kasauli. Some resorts had been set up for people seeking nature through the religion of tourism. By the time I rolled into Kasauli town, the shops at the border were closing. A man desperately tried to make me some Maggie, but couldn’t. They’d all run out of gas after the day’s work. He said he would’ve invited me to his home and spent the night chatting, but he didn’t have a home of his own. He wanted to have a son for one night, but making a living is getting harder and harder in India.

In the heritage market, a man found me and took me to a cheap hotel, as per my requirements. The hotel, it turned out was one side of a home. The woman in charge said it’d be 500 rupees for the night. I was too tired to bargain. I could’ve stayed for free like the nights before, but a hot bath was worth that much to me tonight. The man in the market had promised me a top floor room. The woman insisted on giving me the entire ground floor so that I could spend the night with my cycle. This was a palace. There was a bathroom attached to a room-ish corridor which led to two connected rooms with king size beds which ended in a balcony overlooking the street below. As I settled down, the man of the house came to have the peg he had started to make before my arrival. He rescued another bottle from the box bed for the rest of his night and hid it inside a cupboard made into the mountain for such purposes.

I went out for food. Learning of my address for the night, the dhaba people gave me wry knowing smiles. I asked if it was a hotel at all. “They call it a guest house”, was the reply. It was a shady establishment indeed, the kind that is built for not checking ID proofs. Shady or not, it gave me a shade that night. I had stumbled upon a heaven meant for couples seeking heaven, I guess.

Hot water over my tired body, a glistening mountain town on my eyes, and the most comfortable of beds under me sent me to a very deep sleep.

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P.C. Shairik Sengupta

November 6, 2018

I woke up late. I was too tired to cycle anymore. Yesterday’s ride had shaken up my cycle quite a bit. Neither ride nor rider was in any shape to go far. I had heard it had snowed in Shimla. I missed snow, so I decided to find some other form of transportation there.

I wooshed down the slopes. In the clear morning, I could see snow capped peaks in the distance, basking in the sun’s glory. At the nearest railway station, I came to know that toy trains are too small to carry cycles. I found a bus to Solan and another bus from Solan to Shimla. Shimla interstate bus terminus is well below the city. Steep slopes lead down there. That’s probably to give rest to long-distance buses – they could amble down the last few kilometres, and buses starting their journey could warm themselves up for the road.

I took my cycle down from the roof and started cycling up. My mother had booked a hostel for me. It was in the city.

I cycled up, and afternoon turned to evening. Long rays of the sun reached lazily through long pine leaves. Darkness crept up from greyish pink foggy valleys below. By the time I reached the supposed to be the location of the hostel, it was dark.

My phone insisted that I had arrived. The environment suggested otherwise. Helpful drunk men sent me up to the ridge. I figured there’s no harm in going up. Coming down, should the necessity arise, is always easy. I walked my cycle up through the streets of Tibet market. Tibet market is a street made up of storefront spaces. Two people would have trouble walking side by side. It’s almost like you either go into the shops, or you go into the valley. I reached a prettied up square, and hotel brokers flocked down on me. They tried to convince me that opting for a dorm for 500 rupees when I could have a whole room with balcony parking for 600 is utter foolishness. Unwavering in my resolution to stay in a mixed dorm hostel, I disgusted them thoroughly. I had to call up at the hostel to find it. A beautiful Himachal girl came to show me the way. The brokers got even more disappointed.

The hostel was gorgeous. It was a little below the busy market. There were some single rooms in one side, a kitchen, a dinner space, a common room, a common balcony, and the dorms. I went out to walk around in Shimla. Between beckoning food stores and an antique bookshop, it took a few hours to get back. In the common room, there were the hostel girl, the hostel man, a biker from Jaipur, a couple from Kerala, and me. They were one of those couples who could embrace each other and still embrace the world. We shared food and stories late into the night.

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P.C. Shairik Sengupta

November 7, 2018

With a cup of tea made in the kitchen and one hand dipped in a bowl of hot water, I watched sunlight pour down the valley. It was time to go.

I took a bus down to Kalka, and then a train to Delhi. A British couple fed me some nice food.

It was Diwali night. The parcel office people (who were nowhere to be seen in the parcel office when I reached there) complained about having to do odd little jobs like releasing my cycle while they had loads of work to do. Maybe a load of work is easier to ignore than singular ones.

The city streets were empty. With crackers bursting all over the sky, yellow sodium lamps flooding the atmosphere, parting sheets of smoke, with an escort of various street dogs I came home.

Epilogue

I finally understand why tea is a girl in Hindi.

I have cycled over 300 kilometres. I travelled across Delhi, Haryana, Punjab and Himachal. Kindness was always there. Help was always there when I really needed it.

All the love and care I received from the people I met, would have lied out of reach had I not gone out. What a wastage would that have been…

The answer to all who asked me, “where do you get so much inspiration from”, is simple. Life.

There’s too much beauty to miss out on.

Someday I’ll be in a coffin, I know. Call me insane, but I can’t afford to live inside barriers while I’m alive.

I’ve learnt something on this journey.

In the smiles of people, in the silence of wildflowers, in the empty roads, in the warmth of a conversation in a cold night – I realized that there is so much in our world, that there is no such thing as solo travel.

I’m never alone.