Wednesday, 9 March 2016

I've moved.. wordpress.

The 4 of you who actually read this blog can now follow me here -

..or not. Either way, thanks for reading. :)

A year at home

I moved back home February of last year. By home, I mean Madras (still have trouble thinking of it as Chennai). It's been an eventful year and a mixed bag at the same time. Since this is my 100th blog post, I feel like I should write up a brief (I swear I'll keep it short!) summary of what could well prove to be a landmark year in my life.

There were a few reasons why I chose to move back. Getting hit with the travel bug was one. Spending more time with the family was another. A change of career was the last reason. I managed to hit each of those goals in turn. That makes it sound like I went about it in a very focused systematic way. In truth, however, I took my characteristic inertia-driven approach.

I went on one trip literally two days after I moved back - to Kerala with my best friend K. Sadly, she hurt herself and we didn't get to see and do as much as we'd wanted to. Still, it's a trip I'll treasure. It seemed like Project-Travel was off to a good start.

Then all this cricket happened - the world cup, then IPL. Now, I'm not a big sports fan by any means. I didn't keep up with sports at all the entire decade I was away. But there's just something about watching cricket at home. It's infectious. And so much fun. Somewhere in there, there was tennis as well. Now tennis was always a sport I liked. I lost touch with it when I went away, mostly due to lack of access (no TV). So I watched parts of all the grand slams. This sports watching and otherwise mostly lazing period also doubled up as time spent with family. Inertia kicked in and I didn't make any attempt to plan more travel, and only very cursorily looked into career options.

Midway through the year, more travelling just sort of happened out of the blue - K was getting married and I (half-)invited myself to Meghalaya for the court wedding (it was my birthday when I asked if I could come so of course she couldn't say no). What a glorious place it was. This trip was like a scratch to the old itch. A couple more trips just sort of happened - first a quick trip to Japan, then an even shorter trip to Munnar. These were equal parts awesome and frustrating, thanks to not being on my own and free to do my own thing.

And so I started a planning the sort of trip I really wanted to go on - a freewheeling backpacking trip. Since I anyway had to be in the North East for K's wedding wedding, I decided to plan a trip around those dates - a week in Sikkim and another in Meghalaya. It ended up being an incredible experience. Highly recommend both those places for first-time backpackers (which I was) btw.

When I left on that trip, it was raining in Chennai. I came back two and a half weeks later to find that it was still raining. And then a couple of days later all hell broke loose - the floods. We were relatively safe thanks to living near the coast and not inside the city proper, but those were some scary, crazy days. After the first few days spent taking care of ourselves, it was time to look a little outside the immediate family circle and start thinking about others. Since I was basically jobless, it was a no-brainer to volunteer and help out where I could.

A month later, I was offered a full-time position at the NGO I was volunteering with and I accepted it. Seemed like the right thing to do. No regrets so far.

So there it is. My year back home. A work in progress, but so far so okay.

P.S.: I started off saying it was a mixed bag of a year, but haven't really talked about any of the really crappy parts of it. I mean on a personal level, the floods were pretty terrible but they did lead me to something good. There was worse in store for me when I came back from that fateful trip. Things that are still far from resolved, but I'm choosing to ignore for the moment. Denial is sometimes the only way to deal with some things. But no more about this.

Thursday, 25 February 2016

13th Chennai International Film Festival

I attended the Chennai International Film Festival (CIFF) this year. It was the 13th edition of the fest, but 'twas my first tryst with a film festival on this scale. The only other one I've ever attended was the Free State Festival, a couple of years ago; but that was a much smaller affair and not a purely film only deal. So this was all new to me, and pretty excited was I. I even went to the extent of cutting short a trip to be back home in time for the festival, which got postponed by about a month because of the floods in Chennai.

I came back from said trip the morning of the first day of the festival - Jan 6th - and could only go to the festival in time for the inaugural ceremony at Woodlands. First impression was "Film fest? More like sausage fest!" But this not being something new to me (my interests have always taken me to places heavily skewed towards the other sex), I shrugged it off and went about getting my delegate registration done. Turned out that the registration closes at 5pm and it was already 6, so they were turning people away. Here, my being the odd female in the line came in handy, and a nice guy from the registration team fast-tracked my application and got me an ID card. I think he, like the few others who came up and talked to me over the week, assumed I was "in the industry or a media person" and didn't want to get into trouble (could also be simply the being a female thing but sadly that's very rarely bought me any favours so I doubt it was that - more on this topic another time perhaps).

Registration finally done, I walked in to Woodlands where the inaugural ceremony was set to happen. I didn't care much for that ceremony, but I was very keen on watching the opening film Victoria. So it was quite disappointing to find the place completely packed with standing room only. I went and found a spot to stand in the corner and waited. And waited. True to form, the celebrities who were to do the inaugurating were late - fashionably so, perhaps, but in truth I found it annoyingly so. After standing around for a bit, I got fed up and went outside to find a seat. Found one, but then the mosquitoes found me. So back in I went. As I was standing inside again, I saw some guy carry a chair inside for someone. Probably an unexpected special guest. But this was enough of a precedent for me to decide to follow suit and bring in my own chair. I was comfortably ensconced on my plastic throne and the movie was just starting, when a couple of guys who were also standing decided to follow my example. This was all well and good, except they were blocking my view a bit and blocking the door completely. This last resulted in us all having to get up and shift every time someone wanted to go outside (man, people have really tiny bladders if they can't hold it in for the space of an hour and a half!). Still, in spite of all these annoyances, the movie completely drew me in. Loved it and was very glad to have caught it. I stayed back at the end to catch the credits (always do this especially when the music catches my attention) and was very pleasantly surprised to find that the music was by Nils Frahm - one of my favourite discoveries of 2014. Thus ended the first day of my film festival experience.

From day 2 onward, everyday was a mad rush from one venue to the next, one movie to the next, trying to cram as much movie watching as I could into every single day. The absolute maximum number of films one could possibly watch in a day was 4, given the show timings. I averaged about 3 overall, which isn't bad at all, but I could've done better if it weren't for a couple of goof ups on the part of the organizers. I'm making it sound like I did a lot of indiscriminate I-watched-this-too type viewings, but I assure you I chose my 25 movies after careful deliberation (shout-out here to the Twitter people, especially Venkatesh, whose recommendations, sometimes to others, I used a guide) and a lot of agonizing over what to watch and what to leave. I only ended up walking out of two movies out of all of those - a Sanskrit movie that was staged like a TV serial and another movie that wasn't as bad, but simply boring and not worth my time - and either liked or loved most of the rest. If I tried to write long pieces about each movie it would take even longer for me to publish this post, so I'm going to just copy/paste what I wrote to submit to the Film Buff contest thing (which I didn't win despite getting mentioned in their notable contributions list quite a lot..grr) at the end of this post.

Aside from the movie watching, the week was filled with more walking than I thought was in me. Walked from Woodlands to the Russian Cultural Centre and back, a distance of about 2.5km, quite a few times. Was quite proud of covering that distance in about 20-25 mins. Much quicker than taking the bus would have been given the waiting times and traffic. Still I did wish the venues weren't spread out quite so much. I couldn't make it to one of the venues - RKV Film and Television Institute - even once since that was completely out of the way and not easily accessible by bus even from the other venues. I tried Inox once, but doubt I'll ever go there again, even outside of the festival. Typical multiplex with the most annoying security blocks, overly loud sound system and oh, so cold - both the temperature and the general ambiance. Also, was really annoyed by more than half the people in line for Phoenix at Inox getting turned away due to there being no room, after having waited in line for a good half an hour or more. Is it too much to ask for them to let us know beforehand that there was only room for the first 100 or whatever? By the time they finally told us, it was already too late to change plans and go to a different movie (see previous note about spread-out-edness of the venues). On a more positive note, Casino was my favourite out of all the venues I did go to. Loved the old-school single screen (nice curved screen too) set up. The temperature and sound were just right too. Also helped that every movie I saw there was good and the crowd, being much smaller in number, was less disruptive as well.

Here's a breakdown of all the films I managed to watch, categorized by how much I enjoyed them:

Loved  - Victoria, Taxi, The Forbidden Room, Embrace of the Serpent, Kirumi, Masaan, Pisasu, The Marriage of Maria Braun

Liked - RAMS, The Fencer, Radio Petti, Court, Short Skin, Virgin Mountain, Dora or the Sexual Neuroses of Our Parents, Anwar ka Ajab Kissa, Chronic

Meh - Phoenix, Mountains May Depart, Zero Point, Story of my father bike, Maya

Just no - Priyamanasam

Need to watch again (because I was too tired or only walked in partway through, etc.) - Aferim!, Lili Marleen

I was curious to see how the award ceremony would play out. Was wondering if it would be just another pointless popularity contest or if worthy films and filmmakers would actually be recognized. Must say the cynic in me was both very pleasantly surprised and proven right. The jury awards went to Kirumi and Radio Petti - both very deserving. Was also very happy to see the actor who played the old protagonist in Radio Petti getting a special jury award (I actually squealed and got out of my chair to clap as hard as I could!) - his character was hands down the most adorable of all the ones I saw all through the fest. The other awards of the evening, the best actor and actress awards were much more predictable and disappointing, respectively. Arvind Swamy winning the award was almost a given, and I think he was pretty damn good in a slightly above average movie, so no major issues there. But Nayantara winning the best actress award for Maya made me roll my eyes so hard. That movie simply didn't work for me at all - an interesting on paper but completely ruined on screen deal - and her part in it was so blah that I couldn't believe it. Then I heard all the cheering and whistling and remembered that the core audience here were young males who for whatever reason go crazy for her. Still, if they'd stopped with that I wouldn't have been so disappointed. But then they had to go and give her another award - a youth icon award! This made me positively groan out loud. I really don't get the hype around her at all. She's an okay actress but I haven't seen yet what's so amazing about her. I can name half a dozen other women who're her contemporaries who're way way better. Oh well. Still, at least the jury awards were on point, and that's to be appreciated.

Overall, this was a great experience and I can't wait for the next edition!

As promised, here are some of the mini reviews I wrote for that film buff contest. I wanted to share all of them, but after trying a few times, a few different ways to get in touch with the organizers of the fest and get them to give me a copy of all my entries, I gave up. These are the ones that got mentioned in their notable entries facebook posts, which thankfully are still up on their page. I really wish there was a way to get all of them though, because I wrote some pretty nice pieces, if I do say so myself.

Note to self: Next time, save a copy of every entry, or better still, just post them directly on your own blog since that contest is a sham anyway (/sour grapes).

Victoria (Germany, 2015)

A slow burning conversational piece that seamlessly switches gears into a high octane thriller. Much like the titular Victoria herself after that cocaine hit - the girl who was just coasting along turns into the one driving events. The single shot cinematography adds to the experience by making the viewer part of the gang, in a fly-on-the-wall sort of way. Special props for the music by Nils Framn and to the director for making good use of it - the scene in the night club comes to mind. A+

The Fencer (Finland, 2015)

While this movie follows the basic template of a sports film - the coach with baggage of his own, the team of unlikely children he trains, underdogs in a tough competition, etc. - what really made this film was the performances. The children especially were wonderful. This was my first time watching such a movie on a big screen and the experience of spontaneous applause from the audience at crucial moments really brought home the magic of the big screen. A genre film done right.

Taxi  (Iran, 2015)

Sharp, funny, poignant..I could go on listing adjectives but none would do this film any justice. I will say though that watching it made me happy. So so so happy. Smiled my way through the whole movie and couldn't stop smiling even after it ended. In conclusion, here's another adjective - Inspiring!

RAMS (Iceland, 2015)

A heartwarming tale of two estranged brothers from cilly Iceland. Lots of little flourishes of simple humour in this one. Especially loved the scene where he scoops his brother up using a bulldozer and dumps him off at the hospital unceremoniously. Kudos to the director for making me so invested in these characters that I had my heart in my mouth during the final act. I wanted those sheep to survive almost as much as those brothers did. And I hope they did!


These two, I saved to my email because I had trouble connecting to their website:

Maya (India, 2015)

This film had a lot of interesting elements but they just didn't add up to make a cohesive whole. As a horror film it really did not work for me at all and I'm not even a particularly brave person. Way too much reliance on slow-mo shots and loud music and not enough meat. The characters weren't fleshed out well and I simply couldn't bring myself to care for their fates. Overall a big thumbs down from me for this one.

Pisasu (India, 2014)

On the surface this may seem like a horror movie, but it has so many layers and possible readings. Is it an epic love story? A metaphor for marriage? All of the above,  and more perhaps. And then there's that song and the choreography in it. Not choreography in the conventional sense because the dancer wasn't in front of the camera, rather the camera itself was the one dancing! Very interesting film that richly rewards repeat viewings.


I simply have to write something about the other two movies that I really loved, so...

The Forbidden Room (Canada, 2015)

This movie made me go from "what the fuck" to "I still have no idea, but I love this!" pretty quickly. It was like being stuck in a Michel Gondry dream or something. Very fascinating, very cool. The credits told me that Venetian Snares did the music - such a perfect fit. Also, the director is also from Winnipeg, like V Snares. Must be something in the air there. Produces the most twistedly creative people. More please!

Embrace of the Serpent (Colombia, 2015)

Gorgeous b&w film shot in a part of the world I am desperately longing to visit - that was enough to sell me on it. But my, what a captivating and haunting movie this was. Loved the structure of it, loved the performances, loved everything. Such a special movie experience this was. So glad I could watch it on the big screen. 

Friday, 12 February 2016

Jil Jung Juk - amusing, even if a bit too self-conscious

Saw a movie first day for the first time ever (that I remember) today. That wasn't the only unusual thing about it. I normally avoid heavily hyped things because I find the hype to be a big turn off. Especially hype that precedes the actual release of whatever is being hyped. Not sure why I made an exception this time - the soundtrack got my attention early, maybe that's why?

Either way, I'm not regretting my choice and wishing my money back in my wallet. That might sound like very lukewarm praise, especially considering the hype machine is going into overdrive even post release for this movie. But the movie suffered from a case of trying too hard and falling short for the most part. More style than substance. Very much a product of its time - said time being one filled with easily shareable memes. This is going to make me sound like a hipster, but I was on the internet before it was overrun with these kids and their social media, and remember when memes were more in-jokes among a relatively small user base in an internet forum. For me at least, the appeal of these was in the fact that they were a way to bond with a select group of people with similar interests. But those days are gone, and I'm rambling on.

Back to the movie itself, there were some good laughs to be had and some of the music choices were quite delightful. My favourite part of the movie was when a carnatic piece was used as the soundtrack for a shoot-out sequence - "cue cool music" Indian style; QT would be proud. The jokes that got the most laughs out of me (and most of the audience in the show I watched) were the perverted ones (duh) - the porn references especially. Loved those. The dude who played Juk (where have I seen him before?) also had some funny moments that I enjoyed though his character was a bit over-milked at places.

The thrills weren't as thrilling as they wanted to be (though the music and the camera tried their very best), but since I didn't go in expecting a thriller, I wasn't disappointed by that. What I found frustrating was the rushed nature of the whole thing. Maybe this was done on purpose to make repeat viewings necessary. Maybe it's another sign of the the ADD filled times we live in. Maybe I'm just slow. I did wish there were subtitles at a lot of places (why, oh why, must the bass on soundtrack be so loud and drown out the voice and make me miss huge chunks of the dialog?), and my Tamil reading skills are admittedly a bit rusty so the Tamil-only captions that went whizzing by made me go aargh. If I watch this again, it's most probably not going to be in a theater. I must have the power to pause and rewind!

I said if just now, but I probably should have said when. So yeah, the whackiness was a bit overdone and the movie wasn't all it could have been, but it was still entertaining and not stereotypical. And that's a win. When the vast majority of Tamil movies that are churned out still stick to stupid boring formulas, it's refreshing to see something, anything, new. Even if it isn't really all that new in the larger scheme of things. It's better to have tried and not (completely) succeeded than to have never tried at all, right? If it's true for love, surely it's true for movies, which are a product of love. Or should be. This one clearly was, and for that, it gets a pass.  

Thursday, 21 January 2016

Live Music Saves the Day (yet again)

On Monday last I made my way to Alliance Française de Madras after a rather trying day. The reason I braved the awfully crowded Chennai city buses during peak hour traffic time was a concert, as is usually the case with me. I'd seen a listing on AFM's events page for a very intriguing concert - Indo-Creole Project - sometime ago and had made a note of it on my calendar.

At that point, I was still on my sabbatical and thought I'd easily be able to make it. Things changed, however, and from completely jobless and vetti, I went to super busy a little too quickly. Still, I was determined to not miss this show, and boy, was I glad I made that choice!

I walked in a little later than the 7pm start time cursing the slow service at the worst fast food place ever (ChicKing on Nungambakkam High Road) that was to blame. I say walked in, but it was more like dashed in - climbed the four flights of stairs to the Edouard Michelin Auditorium two steps at a time - more or less completely out of breath only to find the show hadn't started yet after all. For about 10 minutes I was glad that they always seem to keep this auditorium at about 15 degrees for whatever reason. After that, I was glad that I remembered to bring my shawl with me. Wrapped up in said shawl, I waited for the concert to begin.

The father-son duo of René and Marc Lacaille took the stage first. While I don't have too much experience with Creole music, I have some rather strong ties to music from the Caribbean having spent some time during my formative years in the West Indies. My earliest memories of music are listening to my mom's mixtapes filled with Calypso music. So I was thrilled when they played some of those tunes. Their set was quite fun and upbeat like the music. They did explain that the happy music was often juxtaposed with melancholic lyrics, but my French isn't good enough to follow singing, so I only got the happy part of it.

Next up were Debashish and Subashish Battacharya (not related unless I'm mistaken) who took the place by storm with some jaw-droppingly good Indian music (Hindustani, I believe). This was my first time listening to the Indian slide guitar played live and I was instantly a fan. But, it was Subashish's percussion that really blew me away. The way he played both the tabla and the other percussion instrument he had on his lap (the Dhol?) was unbelievable! Rather than take my word for it, here, see for yourselves:

After this spell-binding set, the Lacailles joined the Battacharyas on stage for the final joint set. It was wonderful to hear and see how these two at-first-glance completely disparate forms of music and musicians came together cohesively. It was to repress the smiles, both inward and outward. Nothing as delightful as being at a show where the musicians themselves are having such an obviously grand time playing together!

By the time the concert ended all my annoyances of the day were long forgotten! Huge thank you to the musicians and to AFM for hosting this great event. I'm already a regular at all events you guys host, but now I'll make doubly sure to not miss any such shows in the future. :)

Oh, and here's the full playlist for anyone who's interested. Apologies for the poor quality video. On the bright side, the audio is pretty decent. So listen without watching and you'll get a sense of what it was like to be there.

P.S.: If anyone knows what the tune in that last video I linked above is, please let me know. It sounds awfully familiar, but I can't quite place it. Some folk tune perhaps?

Friday, 4 December 2015

On guardian angels and the adventure of a lifetime - part 2

Cont'd from here...

So I walked to the famous double decker living root bridge of Nongriat, and I must admit it wasn't as impressive as I expected. It was pretty cool but I'd found the long root bridge from earlier to be way more awesome. The shorter span of these twin bridges I think were largely to blame. Still the location itself was quite idyllic with a small waterfall, the little pools and the river, plus all that lush greenery.

While I was walking across the bridges and taking pictures, there was a group of Indians hanging out by the water below who I felt were eyeing me curiously. I tried my best to ignore them and just enjoy the moment. I sat down on the lower bridge and was quietly taking a mental image of the place when I heard someone address me from below. It was one of those guys. He wanted to know how to get to the single root bridge. I told him and also explained that it was worth going to because of the longer span. He thanked me and went away with the two girls he was with (all from Bombay).  The other guy (from Bangalore) said he and the Malaysian girl he was with were camping out in Tyrna. I'd also met two other dudes from Bangalore, and another couple who didn't stop, all on their way back up. Aside from those few I hardly saw anyone else, which was a relief. Heprit and the others at the dorm had all mentioned how crowded Nongriat was getting these days. Guess I got lucky and went on an off day. 

I'd decided to try and go to Rainbow Falls (a somewhat hidden falls some ways away) the same day if I reached Nongriat around noon. Since it wasn't much past that, I decided to give it a go.

I came back to my room; changed into my swimsuit; wore my jeans and t-shirt over it; packed my little daypack (a tiny backpack I’d bought at the Sohra market the day before) with the other two t-shirts, some snacks, my camera, towel, my zune (which I really should’ve left behind, but I had vague notions of listening to some nice music either on the trek or by the waterfall), a bottle of water, and some other odds and ends; and headed out to Rainbow Falls.

I had gotten widely varying estimates on how far away this purportedly amazing spot was – Heprit said it was 2 hours each way from Nongriat; Raju said bees minute, and after a pause added shaayad apko thees minute; and Charlie, guy who ran the guesthouse, said one hour to get there. I decided the locals knew best and one hour each way was doable before it got dark (it was 1:15pm when I set out and sunset was around 4:30).

It was fairly easy going at first, and I thought I should even be able to do it in the dark with my flashlight. Only, there was not a soul in sight, aside from an abundance of pretty butterflies fluttering around. Nor could I hear anyone. Only the constant high pitched chirping of insects and the occasional bird call. Before long, I started to wonder if I had again taken the wrong road. Thankfully, just as I was considering turning back, a group of guys approached from the other side. They assured me I was on the right track and went their way. Feeling more confident now, I walked along briskly and before long came across the long steel(?) suspension bridge and the root bridge right after it that I was told to look out for. Also, right after crossing these bridges (what fun to do it all alone!), I came upon a sign about the construction of a concrete footpath (which I’d been told about) and the footpath itself.

Up until this point, there had been a trail of rugged stone steps but they were rustic enough to still be fun. Now it was just a boring concrete path with proper steps. ‘Twas a downer even though I knew it was coming. Still, I made the best of it and was encouraged by the sound of falling water that kept growing louder and louder. Soon I spotted a pretty little mini waterfall and a pristine pool of water beyond the trees. No sign of a rainbow though, so I just took a few pictures and carried on the concrete path, ignoring what appeared to be a rudimentary trail leading to the pool. Sometime later, the concrete path just ended where there was water flowing across the path. On the right, I saw some sort of a waterfall, but it was more like a dribble, though from quite a height. Just ahead, across the water, was a pile of rocks stacked almost straight up. They didn’t look impassable exactly, in hindsight. But, for some reason I thought that was the end of the road.

I remembered someone telling me they had to climb down to get to the falls, and that it wasn’t an easy climb. And since I could still hear falling water downstream from where I was, I assumed Rainbow Falls was somewhere between where I was and the pool I’d seen sometime ago (foliage cover had been dense since my one sighting of the pool and I’d lost sight of it). I decided it was time to get back into clamber mode and took a path as close to the water as I could.

For a while I followed the water downstream, and though it wasn’t exactly a cakewalk, it wasn’t terribly difficult either. After a while, however, the boulders close to the water started getting sheerer and more slippery. I persisted still and found a small hidden gush of water beneath some rocks. There was a handy boulder nearby where I could set down my things and take a dip, which I was quite ready for by now. So I stripped down to my swimsuit, put all my belongings in a pile safely away from the water, and gingerly stepped into the water.

The water was quite cold, but after all the walking and sweaty climbing, it felt rather nice. However, the force of the water at that place was too much for me to not get swept away, and besides I spotted a foreign girl sitting in a nice spot right by the big pool (same one from before) a little downstream from where I was. She seemed busy with something (her own thoughts perhaps) and didn’t notice me. I considered yelling and waving, but decided it would be rude to break in on her solitude in that way. Instead, I decided to grab my stuff and try to get where she was - there had to be a path leading to there, surely.

Pack back on my back, clothes in one hand, shoes in the other, I clambered on barefoot. After a while though, I started running into roadblocks. Had to keep backtracking and trying different ways to get ahead. Then I had my first really close call – slipped on some moss while trying to jump from one boulder to another, and fell in between! Thankfully, my big hips (those things are good for more than childbearing as it turns out) saved me from a certain case of broken something (possibly my neck), and I stayed wedged between with my feet dangling, until I could finally get my nails into a groove on one boulder. Managed to literally claw my way back up, heart beating wildly and head swimming.

I should note here that, aside from that girl I’d seen from afar, there was no sign of any other human being for miles around. As I was hanging on for dear life, I had fleeting thoughts about how bad a place that would be to die at. I wasn't even on the trail anymore. No one would even know I was laying dead there for days or weeks perhaps.

After this very scary experience, I decided going barefoot wasn’t smart, and wore my shoes again. Also, stuffed clothes into daypack to free my hands – had been tossing them on ahead of me so far when I needed my hands. The going got more and more difficult, and I kept almost giving up but never quite. Part of it was a determination/bull-headedness to see this through, and part of it was, well, fear of what would happen if I did fall whilst trying to backtrack. Seemed like getting to that girl was my best bet.

I finally found an approach that got me within a feet or two of the pool, but these last couple of feet were basically a sheer drop down into the water. I could get into the pool, sure, but there was no way out that way. So, if I left my stuff behind and jumped in, there was no guarantee that I’d ever get them back.

Meanwhile, I saw her again, and this time I didn’t have to think twice before yelling and clapping to get her attention. I’d actually yelled out “hello” and “help” before when I thought I was stuck with nowhere to go a little before I finally managed to get to this spot. But, the sound of gushing water was so loud here that there was no way she would’ve heard me. So this time I clapped as well, and that worked. She looked around confused at first, but then finally saw me across the pool.

I signed to her asking if there was a way to get to where she was. She signed back that she’d come from somewhere behind her (the trail I’d ignored before as it turned out). She didn’t know how I could get to her from my spot across the pool. Swimming, combined with wading where the water was not too deep, seemed like the only option. Stupid me thought I could swim with my pack on my back and not get anything inside too wet (especially my phone and my camera), if I managed to keep it mostly afloat. I was doubly stupid to think I could swim with my trekking boots on.

Of course, as soon as I jumped in, I went down like a rock. My pack had too many clothes that all absorbed water and made the whole thing heavy as lead. On the other end, my shoes and socks got completely drenched, and did their part in pulling me down into the cold as fuck water (I was no longer longing for a cool dip!)

For a bit I thought it was game over for me. But I wasn’t quite ready to give up and resign myself even now. Had to think quickly. Managed to get my pack off my back which helped me to surface for a bit and gulp down some air. I didn’t let it go, however, and managed to drag it to the side, prop it up against some rocks, and pushed it up above the water level. Also managed to drag myself out somehow (still had my shoes on and the boulders near the water were slippery as hell, no grippable spot in them).

I tried to squeeze some of the water out of my pack, but it wasn’t happening. So I took out all the clothes and dumped them on the rock, saving just a couple of shirts to insulate my camera and phone (which I should’ve realised were already quite drenched by now). Also dumped a soaking wet roll of TP (god knows why I got that with me!) and decided to try again with the now lighter pack.

I moved to a spot as close as I could get to the other side, but the pool was much deeper at this point and I knew better than to try swimming there. It seemed to me I’d have better luck going around the pool the long way because I spotted a few boulders just beneath the surface along that side, which I thought I could use to take breaks between my swimming (I’m completely out of practice, and even in the best of times, I was only an okay swimmer).

Oh, how wrong I was! Parallax error. Boulders underwater were nowhere near the surface. I almost drowned again. The pack itself, which wasn’t waterproof, was absorbing water, and my shoes were dragging me down again.

Meanwhile, my guardian angel across the way realised I was quite of my depth (heh) and started changing into her swimwear. I caught a sight of her doing this as I was floundering in the water, struggling to find purchase on the boulder nearest me to get myself out of the water. I can’t tell you how much courage that gave me. And hope. Above all hope. She wasn’t going to abandon me and go on her way. I had someone who was going to at least try to save me.

I redoubled my efforts and succeeded in clinging on by my fingernails again. She was an excellent swimmer and had reached me by now. She took my backpack from me, said she’d take it over to the other side and come back for me. Relieved of my pack, and relieved I wasn’t on my own, I got calmer and managed to hold on. Still no luck getting out of the water on my own though.

She came back as promised, however, and helped me up and out. She then told me she could take my clothes (the ones I’d left behind) and my shoes, if I could manage to get myself across without them. I thanked her profusely, and accepted her assistance, after protesting a bit to not worry about the clothes because they weren’t important at all. She assured me it wasn’t any trouble and she could easily take everything, and even come back for me, if necessary.

It wasn’t necessary though. I managed to swim across on my own, albeit very slowly and clumsily. When we got to the shallower part, she told me I could just get up and wade through that bit. However, that proved tricky, because my legs felt like jelly, and I couldn’t stand let alone walk/wade. So I kept to swimming until the pool became too shallow for that, and then she helped me up.

I was shivering like mad, but extremely thankful to still be alive. She realised I had nothing dry to wear and not even a towel to dry myself, and offered me her own towel and a shawl to wrap around myself. We then wrung my soaking wet clothes, but they were still too wet to be of any immediate use. My own shawl was the least wet of all my things, so I wrapped that around me, and wore my soaking wet shoes again, and tried my best to follow her up her path. I’d managed to lose my contacts whilst floundering in the water, which I only realised when trying to see where I was going in the now deepening twilight. Everything was blurry, so I tried my best to follow in her exact footsteps as much as possible.

My adventure wasn’t quite over, as it turned out. At one point, I stepped onto a slippery rock, which together with my wet shoes brought me down hard. Almost fell through the cracks again into another sheer drop, but luckily she caught me in the nick of time, and helped pull me up. Got away yet again, with just some bruises and scrapes.

Decided barefoot was better, and managed that tricky steep section with her help. After that the going finally got easier. It also got pebblier, so back on the shoes went. We soon hit the old concrete trail, which I was now thankful for tbh. My shoes were so wet that I joked that I still felt like I was wading through the pool. But I did manage to squish my way back to Nongriat without any further misadventures. Oh, so grateful to still be in one piece, bruised and battered and rattled as I was!

I don’t think I can ever thank this girl, D, from Germany enough. She quite literally saved my life that day. And made not the least fuss about it afterward. Was even kind enough to invite me over to hang out with her and the other guests staying at the homestay across the river in Nongriat, when she found out I was all by myself at the guest house.  Before going over there is when I wrote down all of this in a handwriting that's gotten even more ugly from disuse (I seriously had trouble making out my own writing in parts when I was transcribing this).

My only regret is not asking for her contact information that evening. I was afraid to seem pushy, and thought I’d ask for it the next day as I made my way past their homestay to get back up the mountain to Tyrna. Unfortunately, she was out that morning, and though I left her a note (more like an essay, because I’m too wordy for my own good as you, too, have realised by now), I haven’t heard back from her yet.

So there it is. A bad and scary day, in one sense. But also, my luckiest day ever as well!

The good luck, guardian angel protection, what-have-you continued on the next day as I made my painful way (would've been painful enough even without all the extra hurt I'd stocked up on thanks to the previous day's outing) back up the 3000 steps to Tyrna and then back to Sohra from there.

First it was the guide from the Cherra Holiday Resort, who was taking a guy from South Korea back up after a daytrip to Nongriat. He offered to carry my bag up for me. And though I politely refused his kind offer the first time, I very gratefully accepted it the second time, after I’d climbed about halfway up.

Next it was the two nice gentlemen from Assam, also on a daytrip, who kept me company for the last 500 odd steps, bought me frooti and tea, and finally, and most importantly, saved me the kilometer long uphill trek back to the bus stop at Mawshamok and the gamble with the bus back to Sohra, by offering me a lift in their car. And thus ended my adventure of a lifetime! Had a nice story to tell the new people who’d now taken all the beds at the dorm too. :)

Many lessons have been learnt on this trip, but the greatest of them all is to never forget how wonderfully kind people can be, and to always try and be as nice as I can be to others in my turn. Pay it forward, even though the debt will never truly be settled. For I truly believe I am the luckiest dumbo alive, and can’t imagine how I shall deserve even half the kindness and good fortune that has come my way.

Saturday, 28 November 2015

On guardian angels and the adventure of a lifetime - Part 1

In my last post I wrote about random acts of kindness that I've been on the receiving end of. Since then I've experienced such incredible good fortune and aid from the most unexpected of quarters that I'm almost convinced that I must have a guardian angel or dozen watching over me. That, or, like I used to imagine when I was little, I'm the unsuspecting avatar of some goddess and I'll finally come to realise it one day like in those mythological movies of old.

Anyway, story time. I wrote the following the old-fashioned way with borrowed pen and bits of scrap paper, while I was alone in a secluded guest house in Nongriat cut off from both civilization and technology. The former I dispensed with voluntarily and willingly. The latter... well, that's what the story will tell.

I woke up at 7:15 am. Had spent the night at By The Way, the backpacker's lodge in lower Sohra. The Lithuanian wasn't in his bed, the Israelis were still asleep. Walked over to the loo, found the shower was occupied, so came back to our room to put finishing touches on my packing for the overnight stay in Nongriat. I'd thought packing a 45 l backpack was hard, but a tiny daypack was harder still. I really suck at packing light, but in this instance my overpacking came in handy. By the time I was done, the Lithuanian came back from his shower. So I grabbed a hot shower, dumped my old clothes into my backpack, left the backpack with Heprit (guy who runs the lodge), draped my damp towel over my shoulder and set out to catch my bus. The bus stop was right across from the lodge. Took my place with the local crowd and waited for the bus that would take me as far as Mawshamok. From there it was about a 1 km walk to the head of the 3000 step descent to Nongriat where the double decker living root bridge was.

While I was waiting at the stop, Heprit came over and we chatted for a bit until the bus arrived at around 9:30. A small mini bus, it was packed completely. After letting the couple of people who got down out, I hurriedly squeezed in afraid the bus would leave me behind. I needn’t have been in such a hurry though, because nearly half the bus emptied out at lower sohra and I even managed to get a seat.

At first the ride was nothing special, just some dusty roads. But soon things took a turn for the awesome. Winding, twisty roads with the most gorgeous views. At one point I could even see past the mountains into the plains of what I assumed was Bangladesh! And so I grinned all the way to Mawshamok.

By the time I got down I was starting to feel a bit hungry. Luckily I found myself right outside a tea stall. So I went in, took my seat and asked for sha. Shopkeeper girl made me and the local customers some dud sha (milk tea) and distributed it along with poori and what looked like sweet potato. She only had poori by the time she got to me, so I took it and ate it plain following the lead of the others around. No sabzi wabzi for these hardy folks. After finishing my tea, I politely took my cup over to the back of the shop where she was doing the dishes, and still got overcharged (I think) - 20 rupees for a cup of tea and a poori!

Got out and took the road that lead straight from the bus stop, only to find after about 10 minutes that I was heading towards Laitkynsew and not Tyrna. Headed back to the crossroads and took the other fork. Turned on my GPS just in case, and sure enough, I was on the wrong road again! Back at the main road, I asked a construction worker for directions and he told me I needed to go back a bit (along the road the bus had come by) before taking the left at the fork. Finally on the right track, having lost about half an hour in all this back and forth, I set forth for Tyrna, cursing myself for not taking a look at the map before setting out.

And doubly cursing myself for not checking weather conditions out there. Hot and humid as fuck it was during the day, and my jacket was just weighing me down (though it turned out to be a good thing that I’d brought it).  I wore my jacket over my head (a la tea pickers) and trudged on in the heat, drawing odd looks along the way.

I’d learnt my lesson by now, and so stopped at every single fork in the road and asked someone for directions to Nongriat. At one of the last such forks I met my first guardian angel of the day – a villager from Nongriat who was heading back home after carrying up the luggage of some tourists from Assam. I think his name was Raju (at least that’s what I heard), and he was one of the nicest people I’ve ever known. He kept me company all the way down to the village, and even after I told him I had no money to give him, he still acted as my pro bono guide. Waited for me each time I fell behind (walking down so many steps really tries the knees!) and offered time and again to carry my bag as well. I thanked him in my barely passable Hindi and asked him to go ahead and not wait for me. He still persisted and even took me along some secret shortcuts only known to the locals, saving me at least a few hundred steps.

The going soon got very tough indeed. Never-ending stairs, and though the jungle and hill views were nice at first, my enthusiasm started flagging after the first 1000 odd steps. Fortunately just as my legs and spirit were about to give out, we arrived at the single decker long living root bridge at Nongthymmai. What a sight it was! So exciting to see such a marvel of human ingenuity meets nature’s bounty. Loved crossing this long bridge, and equally enjoyed the return route jumping and climbing over the rocks at the bottom, back to the other shore. After this I was back in full glowing form. So so happy to be there and then. :)

Past the long root bridge, the going was much more...not easier exactly, but definitely much more fun! I started getting more adventurous as well – walked/climbed along the sides of the actual steps, which I always find easier somehow. Stairs hurt my knees (guess I’m getting to that age, ugh), but clambering up and down rocks comes naturally to me. I’m quite at home among boulders, or so I thought until..but we’ll get to that in a bit.

Raju was quite amused by my child-like glee in all this and seemed to take a liking to me. He was even kind enough to say hum dono achche aadmi hai, in response to me saying he was one. He also included me in the garib aadmi club (I think because I told him I took the bus to avoid having to pay the exorbitant cab fares), and even offered to pay me when I shared one of the appam-like snacks I’d got from Sohra market with him, bless his soul! Then he gave me the most brotherly advice to find naukri because it wasn’t good to while away one’s time, and to also get married and have kids (heh). On enquiring about him in return, he said he wasn’t married and nor did he have any parents. :(

Once he realised my fondness for the rough trail as opposed to the laid out one, he took my by a shortcut to the guest house where I was planning to stay for the night. Saved me another hundred odd steps at least. When I found out he would have to backtrack quite a bit to get to his own house, I asked him to go on home and told him I’d find my own way to the guest house. But he wouldn’t leave me until I was safely settled in (which was a good thing too because there were many places where I could’ve gotten lost along the way). I really wanted to give him something to show my appreciation for all he’d done. Money was out of the question, so I dug around in my pack and found nothing at all suitable for a guy. I finally decided to give him the rest of my stock of appams. Had to practically force him to take it too. He thought he was depriving me of my breakfast! I thanked him with all my heart and all my stock of Hindi too, and headed out to the double decker root bridge which we'd bypassed on our shortcut.

Continued here...