Monday, August 16, 2010

sanctuary, please

By now I had had enough solitude and was already having imaginary reunions with the people I met in Delhi) and I wanted to get back soon to surprise Shallu. I was determined to ride hard and not linger at each place as I did before. I studied my map and devised a route that, looking back now, was a little ambitious, if not impossible. I hit the road early the next day and rode until the sun was setting and then realized that I was at least another 40km away from the nearest town and that meant that I was nowhere near a hotel either. One of my non-negotiable rules, one that I hadn’t yet broken, was to never ride at night. Breaking, even bending, this rule was too dangerous and irresponsible but I had no idea where I was and stopping would also be risky. I thought about it for a second and it was clear that I had no choice but to get off the road. At least I had a tent.

It was dark and I couldn’t see anything but I could hear the river Yamuna somewhere and followed the sound to a large gate with a sign that read ‘bird sanctuary’. It was open, if only a little, so I went inside to investigate. Whatever this place was it would have to be my sanctuary else well for the night.

There were about 10 chalets along the river to the right and a big clubhouse to the left. The chalets were all empty but a light was burning inside the clubhouse. Judged by my new Indian-standards, this was classy joint and my spirits lifted a little. It could have been much worse, I told myself. It could have been a cemetery.

Looking back now, I should have gone to the clubhouse and asked permission to pitch my tent somewhere but I couldn’t face being turned away because there was, at this point, nowhere else I could go so I set up my tent next to the chalet furthest from the clubhouse just a few meters from the river. It was now already 21h00 and I was exhausted. My plan was to leave the next morning at 5h00 before anyone woke up. All I wanted now was a shower and something to eat but there were no showers or restaurants (not for a poor, trespassing traveler) so I went for a moonlit swim in the river and had ‘hide and seek’ chocolate-chip cookies (the best biscuits in India) for supper.

It was as the hottest night I spent in India and that’s saying a lot. It was a bird sanctuary so naturally the birds screeched so loudly that I started fantasizing about making a slingshot and killing them off and as I was perched 5 meters from a massive river, monstrous mosquitoes tormented me all night long. I only managed to fall asleep around 3h00 and I woke up at 6h50 and only because I heard voices outside.


Ok, don’t panic I told myself as I unzipped the front door, peered outside and saw 2 young Punjabi boys staring at me and my green tent. I smiled, asked their names and even tried to joke about the killer mosquitoes but they didn’t speak. They didn’t even blink. And then they did the one thing I wanted them not to. They fetched the manager.

By the time the manager showed up I was packed up and ready to make a bee-line for the exit. He looked like he couldn’t decide whether I was a criminal or an alien.

Be cool. I greeted him and gave a quick explanation of why I was here: It was dark, it was late, there was nobody at the gate, I should have asked permission, I apologize, I’ll just be on my way, thank you, goodbye. He still had no idea what to do but obviously felt he needed to do something so he asked for my passport. I showed it to him but told him he could only have a quick look because I needed to be on my way. He handed me back my passport and left. Great, I thought, I was off the hook but just as I kicked the Yamaha to life the manager was back, with 2 official-looking persons. The one was in charge of ticket sales and the other was the guard at the gate.

The guard was being reprimanded, in front of me, and was in trouble because clearly he did not do his job. They were speaking Hindi but I understood their body language fluently. They were not happy. At one point the manager pointed at me and then all 6 eyes moved up and down as they looked at my shabby appearance. I realized that I looked rather worn-out. My jeans were torn and muddy and my t-shirt was no longer white and it smelled. Yes, I thought, look at me, I’m a poor traveler. I meant no harm, have mercy please. But they were having a debate and ignored me.

Suddenly the manager abruptly stopped the argument, looked at me and said ‘500 rupees’. I couldn’t believe it. For 500 rupees I could have slept in a hotel bed, had a hot shower, a cooked meal (plus dessert), watched some TV, checked my email and even bought breakfast. This had been one of my worst nights and I felt I was being wronged but had no basis for arguing because, strictly speaking, I wasn’t allowed to even be there, let alone squat there. In the back of mind I knew that I should shut up, pay up and go but I started an argument instead.

Knowing that he had already noticed, I motioned to my appearance and told him that I was a poor traveler caught in a bad situation and that I could definitely not afford to pay 500 rupees, I couldn’t even afford 50 rupees. At this point the financial manager joined in again and was clearly still unhappy about something. They talked some more while the guard looked at me accusingly. Finally the manager gave a grunt and said ‘Ok, 60 rupees’. The financial manager had won the debate and his argument was this: since they only saw me this morning and not the day before they could only charge me for today and since I was leaving they could only charge me the entry fee to the bird sanctuary, 60 rupees. The lawyer in me knew that his argument was definitely debatable but he had managed to convince everyone that it was a fair solution and I was grateful that it had worked.

I took out my wallet and had a moment of panic when I saw that the only note I had was a 1000 rupee note and it would have been painfully embarrassing to have to produce this large note after pleading poverty just a few minutes before. My luck was in and I had exactly Rs 60 change in coins and thought to myself as I counted out all those coins, that it suited my ‘poor traveler’ persona perfectly.

Once safely outside the bird sanctuary gate I gave a deep sigh, relieved that the situation was resolved and that Mussoorie was only a few hours away. Six weeks ago I made a promise to return to Mussoorie and I was happy that I would be making good on it. After the night I had I first needed a bath and a proper sleep before presenting myself to anyone so I booked into the Youth Hostel just outside of Mussoorie.

At the hostel I had a few hours of glorious sleep and then had a long, warm, bucket-of-water bath. This was my first ‘real’ bath since I went to Spiti and I examined every inch of myself, finally taking the time to figure out which parts were bruised and which were merely dirty.

The youth hostel had lots of empty rooms but I took a dorm-style for only 120 rupees. My bed was in a large hall with 9 other beds and it turned out that I was the only foreigner who had chosen a dorm bed so I had the entire hall to myself.

After my bath I put on the only clean t-shirt I had and set off to see my friends. Most of them worked at the learning centre at the church office so I had only one stop to make. Again I was deeply touched by how sincerely and warmly they welcomed me back and immediately wanted to know how long I was staying and booked me for dinner. We talked for a while, hugging every few minutes and then I went to have chai at Shallu’s favourite place, Chardukan, for old time’s sake. I felt happy and safe and loved and welcomed and knew that in the bird sanctuary last night I had found refuge but Mussoorie was a true sanctuary.

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