Thankfully! The bear did not
eat me for dinner
And that too at an altitude that almost seems to touch the sky. But the landscape sounded beautiful and the occasion seemed happy, so I opened my closet, pulled out the sneakers, dusted it and packed it for the trip. I was ready to trek. In Kurseong. There was an added attraction: I would see the white orchids that Kurseong borrows its name from. TS Eliot might call April the cruellest month that breeds lilacs out of the dead, but in Kurseong April is the month where white orchids seem to be everywhere. That tempted me further.
I loathe wearing sneakers. Forgive me for being snooty, but they are too plebeian for my taste. If I had my way, I would always live in my mojris and Hush Puppies. I am not a walker either. Call me lazy but I have a logic – if I can say trim without walking, why walk? But these style fundas and laziness litanies are only for ordinary, every days. On happy occasions and in beautiful landscapes, I even trek. And I wear my blue sneakers. Happily.
There are times the occasions are happy but the landscape drab and when the landscape is stunning, the day is mundane. But when the itinerary for Kurseong landed on my desk, I saw a trek peering out of the packed schedule; a trek that would mean walking the narrow pathways carved out of the undulating hills, looking at the large ferns, peering down the tea valley swathed in green and ending it all in St Mary’s Grotto where you can kneel and seek forgiveness from the lord.
Hmmmmmm! A trek, I sighed. And that too at an altitude that almost seems to touch the sky. But the landscape sounded beautiful and the occasion seemed happy, so I opened my closet, pulled out the sneakers, dusted it and packed it for the trip. I was ready to trek. In Kurseong. There was an added attraction: I would see the white orchids that Kurseong borrows its name from. TS Eliot might call April the cruellest month that breeds lilacs out of the dead, but in Kurseong April is the month where white orchids seem to be everywhere. That tempted me further.
If you have ever been to Kurseong, you would know how deep the valley is and how narrow and winding the roads. Most of the streets are one-way and the terrain so undulating that perhaps even Michael Schumacher would need help manoeuvering. I look at the terrain and think of that trek on the itinerary. The steep incline looked daunting and at an altitude of 4,864 ft. my lungs would curse me. I knew that.
But before I could muster an alibi, I was in the reception area of Cochrane Place, a boutique hotel and Dhiraj Arora, the owner and avid trekker was unfolding the plan for the evening – we would follow the St Mary’s trial, watch the sunset and walk back. The distance – roughly five kilometers, the time – as much as one wants.
A lovely lunch and a quick nap left no time for alibi-hunting and when I could see the afternoon sun caressing the tea plantations and getting ready to go down the hills, I slipped into my blue sneakers, slathered some sunscreen, pepped my lungs up and got ready for the trail.
Everything about Kurseong is so serene and inconspicuous. Even the beginning of a trail. We hop off the van and Dhiraj assuming the role of the guide for the evening announces “here we begin.” Everything around me looked green, I could smell the pine in the air and even before I could take my first few steps, I stop to ogle at the large ferns that looked hirsute and were unfurling unaware of the chatter around them.
I have trekked a lot in jungles but never before had I seen such magnificent ferns. Curious as ever, I ask Dhiraj the name. But the guide is way beyond my purview. I could see his silhouette as he led the other trekkers of the group. Oh! I was the only one left behind. Okay, let me admit, not only was I curious and ogling at the ferns, I was also the slowest, I just could not keep pace with the others. Thankfully, Ayung Shatsang, a native, was patient and waiting. We were going down the hill – actually hurtling down – and Ayung regaled me with stories about his trekking adventures. As we walked deeper into the wilderness, the pine looked prettier and in some corner one could see the snow-capped Kanchenjunga. It had been more than 40 minutes since we started the trek and I was still the slowest and the last in the line, and Ayung was still telling me stories about his adventures. Far away I could see the setting sun and what looked like a scrap of earth that seemed flat. Not just the sun, I could see other trekkers also there; they say it is the finest place to see the sun vanishing suddenly behind the hills. I gazed and waited for the sun to go down… The breeze was piercing through my bones and my long hair was fluttering in the Spring air. I turned around to pull my hair into a bun, but when I turned back, the sun was gone; it had vanished behind the mountains. Ah! my long hair, I thought.
I was not disappointed, though, I knew at the end of the trek was the grotto that I had heard about so much. It was getting darker, but the candles left behind by believers were still flickering in the grotto that has a statue of St Mary. Someone had left behind a bunch of rhododendrons and I sat by the Saint, not so much as to seek forgiveness or blessings but to catch my breath. My lungs were already complaining, I could hear the murmur.
But that would soon turn into babble as we began our trek back. Philosophers try to convince you that the journey back is always easier. Perhaps they have never trekked in Kurseong, hence that belief. If hurtling down the hill was easy, going up was ….. well, impossible. The incline is so steep that if you are not a trekker – I am not even a walker – it would completely kill you. I did not die but it wasn’t any better. A couple of metres up the hill and I started puffing. I braved it. A few more metres and I started panting. I sat on the cement slab of the culvert and tried braving it. A few more metres, I was puffing, panting and my knees were going wobbly. I stopped at every two minutes to catch my breath. Thankfully, Ayung was still with me, still rattling off stories and in between pepping me up on “how close we were to the car and how it meant just a few more minutes.” Few minutes? It seemed to stretch beyond eternity. Honestly, I looked at other trekkers, marvelled at their pace and thought I wish I could match their stamina…
A few more metres later, it was so dark that I could not even see the silhouettes of other trekkers but I knew they were way ahead. Probably they might have reached Darjeeling, 60 kms away, I tried laughing at myself. I puffed so much that even Ayung stopped telling me stories, he waited silently as I walked slower than a snail.
I do not wear a watch so I do not know how much time I took to walk up those five kilometers. Must have been a lot, I mused. Suddenly in the darkness I could hear someone desperately calling out Ayung’s name. As the man came closer, I realized it was the hotel’s chauffeur. He looked ruffled and vexed. He stopped dead in his tracks as he saw Ayung and I. “You took so long, I thought the bear ate you up….” Somehow I managed a joyful squeal. Bear ate us up? “Yes, they do. They have eaten so many men,” he insisted. I squealed again and happy at being alive threw a request at him. “Bring the car here, I can’t walk any more.” He did. My knees and my lungs blessed me that moment.
That night at the dinner table, my trek story had a rapt audience. And peals of guffaws.
Next morning as Dhiraj announced the plans of a trek to the Balason river, Ayung and the chauffeur looked at me. That morning I was in my mojris and a flowing skirt. I was not trekking. I pitied the bears. They’d go hungry, I thought, as I jumped into the jeep for a day of leaf plucking in the tea gardens.
in Discover India, 2007