Friday, July 13, 2018

A wedding in Chennai

It's been a while since we had a massive wedding on the wife's side of the family. This one was especially important as it was the first wedding of her next generation, in this case her nephew's. The oldest of that generation, he decided to enter the venerable institution of marriage obviously through some misguided notions of family and harmony.

Preparations began in early January for the event in July. The women of the family effected expeditions to Mumbai, Kancheepuram and Chennai. They also  planned in meticulous detail the attire for themselves and the hapless husbands alike.  Customized and coordinated matching costumes for each one of the hundred events often necessitated multiple costume changes in a day. As my brother-in-law mused during the event - if we are going to take a nap, what costume do we need to change to?

The wife and kids left Bangalore for Chennai three weeks before the impending union. This of course, elevated stress levels (not for me) as there was no guarantee that I would pack correctly, left to my own devices. A week before my trip, my wife called daily to ensure I didn't mess up. I went to the extent of garnering a mobile phone tripod so I could model all the clothes assigned.  An additional stress angle materialized as I'd gained weight since the original clothing acquisition. However, the modeling and self photo sessions occurred without mishap and got the seal of approval from Chennai.

The Sangeeth was the first of the gazillion events; a lavish affair with no purpose other than to have fun and no bearing on the main event.  A dance by the groom to be (nephew) and the bride to be kicked off the event. The other kids in the family (including my teen daughters) had painstakingly practiced a dance medley which they performed brilliantly.

There was then a musical game which involved remembering  Tamil songs and words.  The compere (a niece) roped me in at the last moment as I was doing nothing noteworthy.  Team 3 was my group with three other women I'd never seen before. One look at me and they accurately gauged that I was a non-factor in the game. Our team actually co-won thanks to zero involvement from me.

With all the choreographed and planned agenda out of the way, we unleashed on the dance floor and as usual I made a fool of myself with my uncoordinated prancing. A first for that side of the family, my antics actually gained appreciation mostly out of the hope I'd never again show such dastardly moves.

The next day was a ladies only program which is the Mehndi. This is where women sit for hours together to get weird designs painted on their hands and arms by patient mehndi artists specially brought in for this eventuality. My attempts at integrating with this crowd was swiftly rebuffed by the wife who relegated me to a different room where one of my brothers-in-law slept fitfully (to be fair, he had recently flown in from the US and was badly jet lagged).

The engagement ceremony followed next, and this is when we first entered the capacious marriage hall called a choultry (no idea why). The brothers-in-law  wandered around aimlessly most of the times, manifesting themselves for photos when called.  Oh, and lots of eating in between.

Next was the reception. Here we need to get down and dirty with the details. Firstly, I was dressed like an elaborate flower bouquet and clothes bursting at the seams. Rajesh Vaidya enthralled us with his Veena performance and the three brothers-in-law sat in rapt attention for the most part.  The highlight of the evening for sure.

The wives of course would have none of it. One look at us and they realized that we were having it too good so they figured out a scheme to have us on our feet.  Here's how the reception went (changing tense here for dramatic effect)...

The boy and girl are on a brightly lit elevated platform with colorful flowers all around, bright lights from every angle and sitting on a throne like apparatus. Well wishers approach from the right to take positions around the two in-focus people. Photographers then go berserk at this point and the video cameras go into a frenzy. There is also a mysterious drone replete with a surreptitious camera that appears out of nowhere and chills one to the spine with the large whirring fans creating icy downward winds. 

Anyway, the groom's mother makes decisions (with a clandestine thumbs up sign from stage) on which of the well-wisher groups gets the all important 'Vethalaipaaku'. This is a return gift which in this case consisted of a bedsheet (or so I was told).  When the groom's mother gives the signal, that group has to be escorted on a special walk to get them the Vethalaipaaku. The selection process defeats me though. 

(End present tense..)

The wives assigned the three jobless brothers-in-law to take over the Vethalaipaaku route. 

From stage, one of the ladies in the inner circle escorted each group to me. I then had to do a soft hand-off to one brother-in-law who then took them to the third guy who handed over the gifts. Needless to say, we made this a very entertaining endeavor.  We had a lossless transmission of over 30 groups. Our best herding was a horde of 22 people that we skillfully led to the path  of salvation and crisp bedsheets. There were, as usual, a few (chosen) rebel groups that attempted to backtrace their path from the stage. We mercilessly dealt with these revolutionaries to bring them back to their true purpose. Sometimes, a group would scatter and it was a logistical nightmare to get the constituents back together for the gift route. Often, one or two individuals would stop and try to socialize and this posed challenges to the supply chain as it would get backed up. Being a keen student of the theory of constraints and being first station in the supply chain, I held it together admirably well (insert self back pat here) and ensured smooth flow.

The day finally ended with more food. What a surprise.

The actual wedding happened the next day and this was mostly uneventful other than the by now ritualistic costume changes, random photographs and overeating.

There was also the 'Nelangu' event in the evening which was an unguided event (no priests to preside over the affair) which involved the freshly minted bride and groom pasting each other with kunkam and turmeric paste.  Another curious program was where the bride and groom had to crack rice papad over each other's heads and try to get as much of the crumbs on the other's head (go figure). 

One key observation during the furore that is an Indian wedding. There's always someone looking for someone else who hundred percent of the time is not anywhere to be found. No one asks for anyone in the existing multitude. This is followed by general panic until the individual is located. It's usually to ask for a key or other inanimate object. And it's always the person who's not there being sought after. Something worth researching...

That was pretty much it. The whole shebang came to a close with a sumptuous dinner and we all crawled home to get on with our mundane lives.

Monday, July 02, 2018

My story submission for Anita's Attic

For entry to the writing workshop by Anita Nair, I had to write a 400 word story given the opening line of the story. Here is what got me selected. Guess what? It's exactly 400 words. Now comes the hard part! To write a novel!!

The weight of its wetness stretched across the skin of her face. She lay still; comprehension of reality not there. The pigeons outside her bedroom window fell silent as if on cue. A strange silence permeated the room punctuated only by her deep breathing that somehow added to the quietude.
She made no move to get up daring not disturb the peace that had overcome her.
Her mind wandered back to her childhood. Through the tranquil haze, she heard her mother’s voice asking her to come in to clean up and do some homework. Reluctantly, she handed over the ball to one of the boys and walked in disheveled, unkempt but content. The boys were secretly relieved to see her go. Her prowess and control of the ball made all of them look bad, even her own teammates. She had scored a few goals today.
The wetness was now all over her and she felt the moisture beginning to weigh on her clothes. She didn’t care anymore. A sense of freedom pervaded her.
“This is the only way”, uncle Ram said. “I know you’re only 19 but your mother can’t care for you anymore and he will be a good husband”. She had no recollection of him, only knowing that he was a distant relative. They had met in some wedding probably but she couldn’t picture his face. Her mother looked at her imploringly. Ram uncle continued to sell the idea of marriage but she drowned out his voice with her own thoughts.
She wondered now if she should get up. It was getting quite uncomfortable already. The wetness was beginning to mix with her sweat and the smell made her want to throw up. She turned her head to one side and tried her best to vomit. Nothing came out.
At first, everything was fine. Shridhar was attentive and caring. He never displayed much emotion except during sex where he would get violent. She talked to her friends who said such things were normal. The violence got worse and it wasn’t only during sex.
She pushed him away, stood and surveyed her work. The knife had cut clean through his jugular vein. Blood was drying up on her face. The wetness was replaced by a stiffness but it didn’t matter anymore. She smiled contently. Getting rid of the body would be easy. She had already figured it all out.

Tuesday, June 06, 2017

To Today

My schoolmate’s wife died late last week. Dengue was the cause. It happened abruptly, without warning and thoughts starting flooding in as they are wont to do in these types of events. 

A bunch of my other school mates showed up for the funeral.  I hadn’t seen a few of them in many years and we bemoaned the fact that we were catching up only because of a tragic finality. 

I’ve tended to take so much for granted. There’s always the call that can wait, an email that is not responded to immediately, things not said waiting for a more opportune moment.  Unfortunately, life doesn’t subscribe to our schedule. We come into this world often with much fanfare but when we go, it’s often like a candle being snuffed out. So many words unsaid, so many plans laid to waste and you are left wondering at the futility of it all.

A few days after a death we’ll go back to our routine lives, worrying and fretting the mundane and confident that we have all this time to achieve what we’ve set out to do. I for one am not going to do that or at least consciously give my damnedest not to fall back into the fallacies I’ve been guilty of. I am going to be in touch with my close friends and family a lot more, never postpone a call or an email I’ve been sitting on. Carpe Diem is a well worn cliche, but this time the gravitas has hit home.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Annapurna Semi Circuit (The culmination)

With modernization comes the perils of deforestation and destruction of some of the most beautiful trails Nepal has to offer. Lovely routes meandering through the wilderness and often stark landscapes have been overpowered by mud roads. 

The New Annapurna Trekking trail (NATT) is the brainchild of a Belgian born German Andrées de Ruiter and Prem Pai a Nepalese trek guru. The sole purpose of NATT is to create trekking routes for those not inclined to suffer the umbrage of pollution spewing motor carriages. The two aforementioned gentlemen actually looked for alternative routes away from the roads and marked the routes at regular intervals with red and white paint. Commitment of this ilk is something else. Imagine walking with a bucket of paint for hundreds of miles just to make it easy for trekkers to navigate away from the dust and decibels! Well, that’s what they did and the NATT stands out as a lifesaver for the myriads of walkers that dot the country’s trails.

If you haven’t read part 1 of our exciting journey through the entrails of Nepal, it doesn’t matter. But here we stop the day numbering business of part 1 as each day in the remaining narrative deserves a more descriptive heading. 

Alright, here goes…

In which we change the rules of engagement (Ghasa-Lete-Marpha)

David is a German lad whom the wife runs into at our hotel in Ghasa. He’s doing the full route anti-clockwise and tells us about hidden off-road routes. Already sick of walking on the motorable road from Tatopani to Ghasa and with the impending walk to Marpha on the same road, we latch on to David’s story and dig deep into his trekking routes and his English vocabulary. He expounds on the Blue and White marked routes which are side trails and NATT trails that we were unaware of.

It doesn’t take long for us to be convinced that we need to take a less trodden route to Marpha. A plot is hatched in the well lit and cosy interiors of Eagle’s Nest restaurant; we huddle around mobile devices and maps as we plan our foray into the great unknown. 

David shares this miraculous PDF which reveals the wonderful world of NATT. We figure out that we can get part way to Marpha without battling the roads. Excitement galore but who will bell the cat? There’s mutiny brewing in the guide ranks as they are convinced they need to follow the route that has been pre-planned. We cajole and smooth talk them into taking the different route. Not convinced but with not much choice, they reluctantly agree but with a few thousand disclaimers. We brush these aside as nothing will make us walk those diabolical dust traps again.

Trek from Ghasa
My foot fully healed, my stomach working like a well oiled machine (okay, maybe not the right analogy), we set off around 8:30 a.m from Ghasa.

The sharp sun and the incisive cold make a merry combination for a comfortable jaunt. First we walk down a stony path to another one of those suspension bridges and then it’s an up and down walk on the side of a mountain (okay, hill as apparently you can only call it a mountain if it has snow on it). There are innumerable pine trees on the forest path on the hills with the Kali Gandaki river flowing below and the multitude of soaring Himalayan peaks (Annapurna South, Annapurna I, Nilgiri South and Tukuche peak to the east) gleaming in white snow in the distance. The walk itself is not very tough as the ascents are actually gradual with some scary steep parts and there are a lot of slopes to walk down on. A heavenly walk through forests with the aroma of fresh pine and wet grass. Bamboo trees adorn the path and the ensemble is magical.

A few hours of walk and we spot a small hut that is part of a village slightly hidden below. This basket weaving village makes extra income by providing bottled soda drinks for the few trekkers adventurous enough to try this route. We happily gulp down Cokes and Sprites.

And then starts a climb up a really large mountain-like hill. Not very steep but a relentless climb.  The roar of the river under us in unison with echoes from the great walls of the mountain make for an interesting surround sound mixed with the voices of birds. The path, wide in most parts for two people to pass, at times getting narrow needing watchful treads in the blowing wind. Nary a living soul did we pass here.

A couple of hours of this immensely satisfying climb and we reach a plateau. Everyone is famished and we stop at the little village of Jhepra Durali (might be butchering the spelling here). The makeshift restaurant here has a small primary school opposite it where I take pictures of the classrooms reminiscent of pre-Independence era schools in India. 

Primary School
We spend a good few hours in Durali as the wife and husband duo cook for us with delicious smells wafting out of their pots; we eagerly await a few yards from the action inside their large kitchen/dining room. A shy little girl (Namrattha) plays with us making sure to keep just out of reach, though she does acquiesce for a quick photograph.

Sumptuous doesn’t really cut it when it comes to describing the food.  Boiled and salted spinach doesn’t sound appetizing but boy was this good! As was the dal, and the egg curry with white rice. We attack the food with gusto throwing caution to the winds. We finally set off on the second leg of our journey crossing the dry Titi Lake, a hamlet (Chhayo), over a suspension bridge over the Lete river and finally onto the dreaded main road. 

Dry riverbed crossing
Near Lete
As we hit the road, something doesn’t seem right and realization dawns that we have done six hours of walking and covered an actual distance that would have taken an hour and a half (from Ghasa to Lete) .But what the hell! We relished every minute of the six hours. And may I add, we didn’t see a single trekker on the entire route!

Lete village lies on the main road. Being weary of foot and sore of body, we decide to jump onto a bus to Marpha.

Bus on the River
If my first bus ride was scary, the second takes it to another level. Not only is it a much longer ride, but sitting on the last row which is is a bare bones wooden bench with some pillows thrown on it jumbles our internal organs in unimaginable ways. At one point, our driver decides that the road doesn’t pose enough of a challenge and swerves right and onto the Kali Gandaki. Mind you, it’s not a dry river bed but a real river with flowing water. A passenger protests as his stop is on the wayside of the road. I mean, seriously, who lives near the road when the river beckons so benevolently. Anyway, the driver reluctantly stops in the river and the passenger gets out amidst much muttering and cursing.

We continue on our bronco ride till the town of Marpha (2650m elevation and in the Mustang District) where the wife promptly starts throwing up the minute she gets off the bus.

Marpha is beautiful village from the 1700s and apparently a model one in terms of its cleanliness. The entrance to the village is adorned with prayer wheels. A town crier walks up and down the streets telling folks of a visiting doctor from Pokhara in a musical voice.

There are probably about a thousand residents here. Marpha is considered to be the apple capital of Nepal. Apple orchards abound aplenty in this region and they are a sight to behold. The Thakali community lives here and the houses are decidedly different from what we’ve seen thus far. The top of each house has neatly arranged layers of wood logs no doubt to protect agains the harsh winter snow.  Unfortunately, I can’t make a trip to the Nyingma monastery which sits high above the town. Something for another trip.

Did I mention them apples. Well, the freshly squeezed apple juice here is to die for. Two of the group members also partake in the local apple brandy brew and Khukri rum

The night ends with a lukewarm water bath and the wife suffering considerable stomach pain with a still unknown cause.

The cheat day

Today we decide that there’s no walking to be done as the wife is in bad shape. We decide to take a jeep to our next dusty destination of Jomson (elevation 2700m) which is the capital town of the Mustang District. The other three pick yet another NATT route to get to Jomsom much to our guides’ chagrin. 

Jomsom Hospital
View from the hospital
We get the lady treated in the Jomson hospital which has  a grand total of two patients admitted for something that obviously requires admission but otherwise the hospital is empty. The view of the Dhaulagiri mountain from the hospital is clear and breathtaking. Wife is finally let off with a clean bill of health after a couple of hours of IV fluids, some suspect mushroom soup, a couple of pills and few words of caution. Apparently just a mild case of gastroenteritis.

An otherwise uneventful day for us ends in the Himalayan Java Coffee cafe where the barista makes a mean macchiato and plays lovely tunes on his keyboard and guitar.

Three villages and a pass

Finally, everyone is healthy and fit. After poring through the now bible like PDF, I discover a side trail  (blue/white markings) on the Jomson to Kagbeni (elevation 2800 m) route that shows much promise. Again, the tête-à-tête with the guide as he says they don’t know this trail and is against deviating from their path to salvation. We overrule them (as usual) and take a jeep to Eklebhatti bridge a mere 8 km drive from Jomsom towards Kagbeni. 

Eklebhatti bridge
New born goat
First over the suspension bridge spanning the Kali Gandaki river (there’s really no getting away from it on the Annapurna Circuit) and a short while later we are in the village of Pakling. Other than a lady washing clothes and a large dog which takes exception to our presence, we see no one. The dry stony path leads up towards the village of Phalyak. An elderly man is walking down with a new born goat which still has it’s umbilical cord intact. I can’t resist but touch the little fellow and the mother goat providing the security cordon is agitated. We move on.

A personal milestone
The land gets drier and stonier as we ascend to the next village of Phalyak but the views of the mountain only get better. We are already at 3000 m and the altitude begins to tell on one of our group members. We soldier on to the last village on this route going down towards a rivulet with crystal clear water and then up to Dhakarjhong. What an amazing entrance to a village! First of all it sits at 3200 m and the entrance to the village is a cave with well cut stones forming the walls and ceilings of the walk through cave. Small doors on the sides of the walls lead off into homes and storage spaces. I try to capture it all on camera as best as I can. A channel comes up with gushing icy cold water and we reach a large man made pond. Here local women wash clothes amidst village banter. As is our wont during our walks, we are now very very hungry.
Drying Yak Meat
Sachin, our ever enterprising leader, finds a lady who tells us of another lady who is willing to cook for us. We pretty much take over her house, my wife occupies one of the bedrooms and I the dining room and push it by asking for a blanket which they readily oblige with.
A short catnap is interrupted by the call for lunch. We are served by Lakshmi Didi the warm hostess of the house. I try yak meat for the first time and I am hooked. The yak is dry and deep fried with spices and oil and makes a lethal combination with white rice. Maybe it is the hunger but the hot food hits the spot.

The lesser known Batase Bhanjyang also called Windy Pass is a Mecca that I had omitted mentioning earlier. We had read about it in the pdf and it seems like an utopian dream to get to it as no one we talk to knows about it. 

Now, in the village of Dhakarjhong, we learn about the tower that we can see higher up above. This is indeed the mystical windy pass and Laxmi Didi tells us that it’s about a 45 minute walk up. 

The excitement palpable, we launch into our final climb which looks easy but is quite challenging especially with bellies full of Laxmi Didi’s delicious delectables.

The windy pass sits at 3450 m and from here Jomson is in plain sight. The wind is of such force that one can lean back into it and not fall backwards. On a clear day, you can see Upper Mustang, Thorong La, Tilicho peak, the Nilgiri, Daulagiri and Tukuche peaks. We are not so lucky and we only get a brief glimpse of Daulagiri and an even briefer glimpse of Thorong La. There are satellites and communication towers on the pass and nothing else.

View from Kagbeni lodge
Our souls appeased and with general contentment all around, we get back to Dhakarjhong where Laxmi Didi gives us hot tea for our efforts.

We then trudge back to the Eklebhatti bridge and catch a passing bus to Kagbeni without much fanfare.

Kagbeni is small town akin to Marpha but a little more commercial in its appearance. There are narrow lanes and by-lanes that go through the town and the place is filled with little cafes and restaurants. The forbidden (you need to buy a $500 pass) Upper Mustang begins somewhere here and the town overlooks the Kali Gandaki river and of course the omnipresent Daulagiri.

Where we thumb our noses at walking

Muktinath Temple
General consensus on the eighth day in Kagbeni is that we’re done with our trekking. We decide to take a jeep to Muktinath (elevation: 3800 m), our final destination. There are a collection of shrines on the top, the main deity being Shiva. The entrance is decorated by random Indian looking Sadhus awaiting financial freebies.

More of the temple
Fortunately, there isn’t much crowd and we get to see a couple of the shrines and the big sitting Buddha and have some amazing food in a Reggae bar and restaurant at the base of the hill.

The fading light of dusk now makes the drive back to Jomsom a bit edgy and is compounded by a stuck jeep which our driver tugs out of the water. I proudly put my Swiss army knife to its first productive use of its life as the tow rope made of the Hulk’s bones refuses to be untied by human hands.

The night has fallen and I strongly believe our driver is driving by instinct rather than by sight. My data point is that at a certain phase of our journey we are actually driving ON the Kali Gandaki river itself with the flow, on the flow and for a length of time that is not natural to be driving in river.

Somehow, we reach Jomsom where our hotel has been overpowered by a large pilgrimage group from Tamil Nadu.  They are dishing out bise bele baath, curd rice and stuff that we are all dying to get our hands on. My lady decides to go ask for a plate and is handed a full plate of South Indian food with no questions asked.

Flight of fantasy

View from Jomsom Airport
True Heroes - Our Porters
 The small JetStream plane seats about 20 people. There is no door to the cockpit and various machinations performed by the pilot and co-pilot do is visible to all. It’s a lovely take off on one of the smallest runways I’ve ever seen. All the peaks that have been our companions the last 9 days surround us in all their splendor and we get great views once again on both sides.

Cockpit view
Back to Pokhara after an amazing time with our own custom routes thrown in for good measure.

What next? Upper Mustang calls...

Friday, April 28, 2017

The Annapurna Semi Circuit (Part 1)

Walking up and down mountains and through rivers and valleys is a romantic notion. I really had no idea what to expect embarking on the 8-10 day trek in Nepal that someone else (thankfully) had arranged.

A brief background which provides some context to one of the most enriching experiences of my life and a reaffirmation of all that is good in this world.

Nepal, a mountainous land-locked Himalayan nation (adjectives much?) has a large porous border with India and surrounded by the latter on the North, West and South with the eastern border completely taken by Tibet (China).

The National Trust for Nature Conservation (NTNC) in Nepal has put a lot of heart and soul into the Annapurna Conservation Area Project (catchy acronym ACAP). 

The reason for boring you with these details is that the ACAP work stood us in good stead throughout our time in Nepal and one can only marvel at this organization’s efforts to mark often obscure trails to ensure no one gets lost.

Day 1 (14 km)
Pokhara Airport
In Pokhara, Mountain Monarch, our guide company efficiently distributes our duffle (or dufflel?) bags each containing within its cavernous interior a sleeping bag, jacket, blanket, a large plastic bag and the all important toilet paper.

Our walk starts with a drive. About an hour or so from Pokhara lies the small town of Nayapul. Most serious trekkers do the anti-clockwise route commencing from Besisahar to the east of Pokhara and complete the full circuit in ~16 days. Our group of five is a novice group and we elect to do the clockwise route but only half the circuit (hence the clever title). 

We have three porters and for some unfathomable reason - three guides though our ring leader Sachin had clearly instructed that we need three porters for our duffel bags, 2 porters to carry our day packs and one guide. Anyway, details details; we got what we got. Of the three guides, one of them is a teenage kid whose sole purpose is to carry a small red medical pouch which apparently houses cures for any and all deadly diseases we may encounter during our travels. With the colorful name Tasveer (picture in Hindi), he seems to serve no other purpose other than a free internship with our hapless group.

The porters on the other hand are made of sterner stuff. Each of our duffel bags weighs upward of 15 kg and the porters expertly tie two duffel bags together and effortlessly haul the loads and are off at a pace which we lesser mortals (with nothing to carry) can only dream of.

First Lunch
We trudge our way up grassy slopes and tree laden lands and ascend gradually, passing trekkers coming the other way, some passing us and we scarcely passing anyone. Greenery gives way to a muddy road cut in the mountain. We reach Tikhedunga for our first exposure to dal bhat  (lentils and rice), our comfort food for days to come. Blissfully unaware of the remaining hike to follow, I stuff myself with rice, lentils and noodles to account for 10 kms of walking (the furthest I have walked in a day). Needless to say, the second part of the hike is killing. For one, it is an incredibly steep incline heading to Ulleri our next stop. And my stomach isn’t quite right with the overload of carbohydrates and it reflects in my struggles to take on the never-ending steps of varying heights of unstable stone.

On the way to Ulleri
We make it to the sleepy town of Ulleri (elevation 1300 m) where we are welcomed by our first overnight stay hotel called Meera (tagline: Stay in a best place). Our group of two couples and a single guy is then asked to share a restroom (only one bedroom had an attached facility) which results in much friction (an ominous portend of the conflicts to follow) with the lead guide who provides us some amazing logic for our predicament. To add another level of excitement, my stomach is now in full rebellion and I spend the better part of the cold night on the throne.

Day 2 (10 km)
The day dawns bright and cloudless and we catch our first glimpse of one of the behemoths that Nepal is known for. Annapurna South, peaking at an impressive 7219 m looms over the the smaller mountains and it is one awe inspiring sight and I introspect human insignificance against the mighty mountains. Hiunchuli at 6441 m is the other large mountain that's clearly visible from our night abode.

Ghorepani Hotel
With my battle of the bowels still in play, we head to the next destination of Ghorepani. We stop for lunch at a beautiful wayside restaurant in Nangethanthi where we spend an obscene amount of time eating and resting. Here we discover the pleasures of Poon bread (also called Tibetan bread with apparently one more variation called Gurung bread). At about 2000 m elevation, we have left behind the dust and stones and are treated to lush hues of green on the soil as well as in the trees above. The ground we walk on is soft with the fallen branches and leaves and the natural moistness at this altitude. We keep comparing our surroundings to the Lord Of The Rings Shire, the home of the Baggins.

The Nepali definition of a gradual climb is not for the unprepared. Sometimes, not knowing what to expect maybe good as we complete the ‘gradual’ climb into Ghorepani by late evening. Here, at 2800m, we get a much better view of Annapurna South and it’s a view of which I could never tire.

With my tummy tribulations, I take lots of rest and very little food that night.

Day 3 (18 km)
The rest of the team decide to brave the elements (icy cold and a thick mist) at 4:30 a.m to climb up Poon Hill (3200 m) for a better view of the mountains. I opt to sleep in.

From the hotel in Ghorepani
Day 3 for me begins with one more conflict between the lead guide and our leader Sachin who takes exception with the arrangement of baggage carrying. Being blissfully unaware of the details, I’ll not delve into it further.

One thing you learn during trekking is that no one and no sign ever speaks of distances with the usual measures. Distances are always measured by time which is meaningless as our group stops for photos at the drop of a hat and takes frequent rest stops.

Ghorepani to Tatopani
Ghorepani to Tatopani
Suspension Bridge over Kali Gandaki
We are told this day will be our longest day which translates to 7 hours of walking. While relatively easy to do, walking downhill and descending 1700m pose their own brand of challenges.This I quickly discover as I place a foot on a not so cooperative stone and feel some pain as it twists in an unintended angle. Everything looks to be okay as our guide (now turned orthopedic consultant) makes me do some weird foot action and normalcy seems to be restored. More breathtaking views of Annapurna South and now Machhapuchhre and Dhaulagiri make our walk whimsical. The usual lunch fare is at Sikha another small hamlet on the way down.

During a restroom break in the great outdoors I catch a glimpse of a large snake but I’m unable to get a picture. We cross a steel suspension bridge hanging over the famous Kali Gandaki river. The last few kilometers are by ‘motorable’ road and we reach Tatopani (elevation 1100 m) after over 9 hours of walking, eating and resting.
Hotel at Tatopani

The 18 km walk in conjunction with my twisted foot replaces my stomach ailments and my foot feels like lead now. I still limp nimbly to the fabled hot-spring of Tatopani where we are met by a small rectangular swimming pool like concrete enclosure with predominantly topless men smoking and chugging down a few. Undaunted, we slide ourselves inside the pool which does indeed have warm water though I am suspicious that there’s an electric/gas heater powering this all.

Day 4 (10 km)
Our next destination is Ghasa, supposedly another 5-6 hour walk but of unknown distance. We come across a powerful waterfall (Rupse Chahara, 300m height) with a roar clearly being heard deep in the valley where we pause for our meals. The deepest gorge in the world - Kali Gandaki gorge is right here too.

A slight drizzle now turns into a regular downpour temporarily suspending further walking activities and we use this time wisely - eating and drinking some more in the small (German Bakery) tea lodge ensconced between the waterfall and the gorge. 
The Rupse Waterfalls
After the rains
The waterfall hitherto cascading pure white water now turns a chocolate brown indicating the severity of the rains in the mountains. My foot is now almost immobile and a stick and poncho are feeble measures against the elements and the sprain. The group takes a vote (without me) that I need to take a bus to Ghasa about a few kilometers away. We hail a passing bus which already is bursting at the seams and tilting dangerously to one side. The lead guide and I clamber on and miraculously make space for ourselves albeit standing. We also are the proud possessors of a doko which is a large bamboo basket holding all our day packs. The next fifteen minutes are the scariest of my life. The rain has not let up fully, the ‘motorable’ road is narrow and comprises of flowing mud and stones. Ghasa is higher up than Tatopani and with the Kali Gandaki river a few thousand feet below us, every curve we take I feel will be my last. The driver nonchalantly handles the bus like a kid would a RC vehicle and even turns back to exchange pleasantries with the conductor and other passengers. All this while dangerously maneuvering the bus through stomach churning blind turns and oncoming traffic which pretty much comes down in similar fashion.
Our hotel in Ghasa
We finally reach Ghasa (elevation 2100m) without incident other than the fact that the bus stops about 500m ahead of our hotel stop. With my poncho fighting a losing battle against the rain and wind, stick in one hand. limping terribly and the guide carrying the basket with two hands, we comically make our way back to the hotel.

I take a good nap waking up to hot tea and biscuits while the wife and the rest of the team have a chance meeting with a German that would irrevocably change our plans for the rest of our trip.

Friday, September 30, 2016

Lessons in Management, Leadership and Flawless Execution

Anticipating a nice long nap on a flight from Jaipur to Bangalore, I was instead given a memorable life lesson or two...

A few nanoseconds after the seat-belt sign went off, a flurry of activity ensued.

Three people in seats around me jumped up, bags and boxes of food were opened and paper plates magically materialized. Kachoris, chips, two types of sweets (laddoo and another one I couldn’t view due to the alacrity of operations) were put in each paper plate and the game was officially on.
There were at least twenty plates that were distributed across the aircraft, incredibly enough with very little communication and zero confusion on roles and responsibilities. One guy was opening the food boxes at high speed, the other was loading the plates ensuring perfect balance in portion size and one more guy was going around the plane dishing out the plates. The frenzied efficiency of the entire operation was a sight to behold. There was even this one white guy who just couldn’t resist all this food being passed around and requested for a plate. Not an eyelid batted; he got a plate with no disruption to the supply chain operations. The flight stewardess wanted to bring her food card down the aisle to serve us less fortunate mortals but she was informed politely but firmly that she’d have to wait 2 minutes.  The estimate went up to 3 and then 5 minutes all within a matter of a couple of seconds but at the end of 5 minutes, the perfect operation culminated with a trash box to gather the remains.

My learnings:
1.       Overall Planning – These folks were born to do this. At no point was there any sign of trouble or mismanagement. They made it look easy and seamless. I’m sure that only comes from years of training in the trenches of kachori and ladoo service with the constraints of time, space and resources
2.       Capacity Planning - Ability to cater to unplanned demand (they even asked the stewardess if she wanted a plate)
3.       Scale and Speed - The entire operation was geared for the shortest possible flight duration.  A 20 minute flight suffices for end to end execution
4.       Division of labor - Immaculate – everyone knew their role with minimal inter communication
5.       Optimization & Efficiency - Only three people were involved and 20+ people in different parts of the aircraft got served in under 5 minutes. As my colleague on the same flight put it, this was a surgical strike done with clinical precision
6.       Customer Satisfaction – The white guy had his fill and promptly fell asleep with his mouth open and a look of contentment on his face
7.       Quality – Zero defects, zero wastage, zero evidence of any food/service

Needless to say I couldn’t sleep after this immersive educational experience and spent the rest of the flight in a state of anti-climax.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Bates Motel (A Review)

Bates Motel is slick, entertaining and addictive. The name of the series naturally drew my attention with all the memories of Alfred Hitchcock’s classic thriller and I just HAD to watch. One always wonders about Norman Bates’ past and this series does a bang up job of presenting an amazingly well thought out perspective and context.

Before your very eyes, you see Norman evolve (not sure if that’s the right word here) from a gawky, innocent and shy teenager to a young adult with psychological problems due to his mother’s difficult childhood, his own encounters with the opposite sex and his coming to terms with his mental condition.

Without giving too much away, a quick summary/review of the series.

Set in modern day Oregon (though shot in British Columbia), the story is developed subtly and with extreme intelligence. 

The fact that murders are commonplace in the small town Norman (Freddie Highmore) moves to and lives in is explained well with the town’s own issues, problems and generally weird goings-on.  

Norma Bates’ personality spanning multicolor hues is richly portrayed by Vera Farmiga as you end up sympathizing with her in one scene to feeling she’s a real bitch in another. The conflict and anguish within her are evident as she realizes her son is not all there and she becomes the controlling mother in Hitchcock’s narrative. The subtlety of the series shows up in a few ways here. Her hair which is initially blond and wavy in Season 1 slowly makes way to the silver colored bun that is a hallmark of the movie. In another scene, Norman is sleeping in his bed and she’s rocking back and forth on the chair that is unmistakably reminiscent of the movie.

The relationship between Norman and his mother also slowly changes as he starts realizing what he’s becoming and Norma’s helplessness as she attempts to cope with her own life and his. Shades of the Oedipus complex show up in flashes providing some explanations to his eventual persona.

The show is far from one dimensional with Norman’s elder brother thrown in the mix. Relatively more normal than his sibling and mother, the brother’s character only evokes empathy as he’s a man with a good heart and readily bails out his family from trouble which Norma and Norman keep getting into. As the town sheriff says in one scene to Norma ‘You seem to always attract trouble’ or something to that effect.  There’s also the girl who helps out at the motel and always wants to help but feels excluded from the psychotic whirlpool that is the Bates family.  Other characters include the town’s enigmatic sherif and the shifty uncle from the past.

Every aspect of the Norman Bates character is explained down to the tiniest detail including the reason that the Bates house is full of stuffed dead animals and his voyeurism.

The series has you on the edge every minute of every episode. One cannot do justice to it in a write-up. Scary, thoughtful, provocative and intensely brilliant and definitely worth a view.

Just make sure it’s not the last thing you watch before you switch off the lights to go to sleep at night.

Thursday, June 04, 2015

Zak the Gentle

Zak died on May 22nd and with that, he took a part of us with him.

He was withering away for the last week or so prior to that and there was something deep inside that knew he wouldn't make it. Still that doesn't make it any easier. The second time we've lost a beloved family member in a few years time. Sol died when he was seven and  half and now Zak at six.

From the moment we got him as a 30 day old, it was evident that he was playful but extremely disciplined. None of us ever remember training him but he just listened. Like any other puppy, he was a joy to be around and watch.

During my startup days, Zak regularly accompanied me to work where he was just another member of the team and he made sure to spend time with each of us during the day. Birthday celebrations were a big deal for Zak as he always got the first piece of cake,

Zak didn't really fancy too much activity or the company of other dogs. He always considered himself one of us. He's probably barked a few times in his entire life. Most people who've been terrified of dogs got over their fear just by being with him a few minutes.

In our apartment complex, we were all known as Zak's family and that sums up his presence. A beloved soul whose only need in life was to be loved and his fur to be ruffled.  His only time of insistence was when you stopped petting him and he would place a purposeful paw on your leg just to remind you gently that he was not done.

He enjoyed our long trips and the girls spent many an hour in the cargo section of the car just being with him. We took him everywhere and he took it all in with the pleasure of a baby.

Zak passed away when we were out of the country and now that we're back, it's inconceivable that he's not around. I expect to hear the frantic paws on the floor every time I call him as he scrambles to get to me. It will take a while for us to get over his loss but the memories never go away and I know he's in a good place wherever he is. Goodbye big fella....there's always a place in our heart for you.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Two decades and counting

My cousin who is a journalist and an exemplary writer recently wrote about her 28 years of marriage to a military spouse. An inspiring read to say the least but it got me thinking of my marriage and where  (after 20 years) we've come to from our early days together as husband and wife though neither of us are in the military.

I've always had relationship issues or to put it bluntly, had no relationships at all with the fairer sex during my wild formative years in the northern regions of Nigeria nor during the obligatory four years of engineering in India. 

The whole concept of getting married came quite out of the blue as I was merrily going about my first job in the US after completing my graduate degree there. My uncle in India kind of suggested I consider this girl who was a distant relative of mine. The type of decision making one does in the younger days is so unfettered and liberating. Being the 90s, I got her photos in the post and showed it to my ex-roomies who asked me what I was waiting for and that was it.

Vaishnavi and I did talk a lot during those early days apart and though I could ill afford the multi-hundred dollar phone bills, it didn't stop me. Though we were related, we'd hardly seen or talked to each other growing up so this was essential for both of us to do. When I did go to India for the the 2-in-1 program (engagement followed by wedding on consecutive days), it was still quite awkward for both us to say the least.

Our early days together in the US were hard only when we look back on them in today's context. We didn't have money and often withdrew cash from credit cards to put into our bank account (don't really remember why the convoluted transactions). We never thought of these as hardships though and just went with the flow. 

When she cooked for the first time in her life, I made an innocent comment on the sink being full of pots and pans and pretty much a single cooked offering to show for it. She burst into tears. I also had to alter my daily routine drastically. I'd come home from work, have tea and take a nap. Hmm...

For a girl who's been around family all her life, being away for the first time in an alien land with a stranger cannot be easy any way you look at it. I must say she adapted remarkably well very quickly.

The start of the new millennium gave us our first experience of true adversity.  We realized that we couldn't have children. It's when you know you can't have something that you want nothing else. It did take us a while to even accept this fact. We'd read about teenage kids aborting their pregnancies and newborns flushed down toilets and we'd cringe and lament at the unfairness of it all.  

We finally reconciled to the harsh reality and then went about figuring out a solution. Numerous tests, prodding and medications followed. We found this amazing doctor  specializing in IVF at Mayo Clinic in Phoenix and we were there a few times a week.  It wasn't all bad. The whole experience was turned into an entertaining aspect of our lives and I still remember both of us laughing insanely at the stupidest things as we went back and forth from the hospital. An unforgettable quote from one of the doctors - 'you have a beautiful uterus' - cracks us up to this day.  

Towards the end of 2002, we were informed that two eggs had fertilized and were on the merry path to parenthood. Neither of us believe in miracles but if there ever was one, this was it. And in the 37th week of our tiny adventure, during a routine examination, Dr Lindstrom (who Vaishnavi thought was very good looking) said these words - 'Let's get those babies out of ya. Would 1 p.m work for you today?'

We moved back to India in 2004 with our twin girls and life's been good. Our girls have grown up to be strong independent little women and we can't imagine how we survived before them. We have had job changes (me more than her), gone through distressing financial times and tough relationship times. 

If I could draw a graph, I must say, overall, things have been well above the median in terms of how our relationship has evolved. Yes, we have become older, more irritable and grumpy, but when I see Vaishnavi,  I still see the slim, long haired gorgeous girl all of 22 years old.

What prompted me to write all this now? One was definitely my cousin's eloquent recap of her married life.  Other than that, memories started flooding back last night. Vaishnavi and I took a long walk and we talked about our future, our children's future, what and how we should plan for them. We got to thinking about how we started out and the fun we used to have together. It was time to pen down our joint history.

For most of us, there are no defining moments in life but a series of incremental events that define our relationships. The two of us are very different but our core values, morals and beliefs are the same and that's pretty much my nugget of wisdom for those embarking on the journey of togetherness.

I can't but resist ending with a few lyrics from an old Paula Abdul song because this so us!

Baby seems we never ever agree 
You like the movies 
And I like T.V. 
I take things serious 
And you take 'em light 
I go to bed early 
And I party all night 

A wedding in Chennai

It's been a while since we had a massive wedding on the wife's side of the family. This one was especially important as it was the...