Last month I offered an illustration of how travel rejuvenates a person, often helping one rediscover a friend’s best qualities. This month’s piece is about travelling with strangers and getting to know them better.
Part II : Propah and Collected
Propah and Collected (henceforth referred to as PC)
Propah: ‘Proper’, pronounced with a stiff upper lip as the British do ; prescribed or required by etiquette or custom
Collected :possessed of calmness and composure often through concentrated effort (Merriam – Webster dictionary)
About a decade ago, I was part of a trek with Odati Adventures in Arunachal Pradesh, in a part of the Eastern branch of the Himalayas. Most of us were rookies – our past trekking experience limited to weekend treks in the Sahayadri hills in Maharashtra; not only were we excited to be trekking to an altitude of 14,000 feet, we were all aflutter with excitement at a weather forecast that warned of snowfall in the region. The first time we glimpsed snow-covered peaks from a distance, in our hurry to clamber out and get a better view, four of us almost fell out of the SUV we were travelling in; PC had it together though and climbed out unhurriedly, camera in hand.
Over fifty years old, convent-educated PC was an old-school gentleman always dignified in bearing and courteous in manner, one who spoke the Queen’s English in a measured unhurried manner, every word well thought over, grammatically correct and clearly enunciated. Even when he spoke Hindi, it was always ‘shuddh tatsam’ (pure sanskritised) Hindi, not ‘bol chaal ki bhasha’ (colloquial language). He believed in living his life in the same fashion – systematically, in accordance with certain immutable rules.
The start of his trip should have been a portent that this time events would run counter to his planned and systematic approach. Despite clear instructions about packing everything in a back-pack so that it could be easily carried by porters, PC arrived at Guwahati airport with his belongings in a hold-all that had a broken zip and was held together by safety-pins, that put paid to any hopes of impressing fellow trekkers with either his planning skills or dignified mien!
Over fifty years old, convent-educated PC was an old-school gentleman always dignified in bearing and courteous in manner, one who spoke the Queen’s English in a measured unhurried manner, every word well thought over, grammatically correct and clearly enunciated.
We were to begin trekking from a (then) remote place called Nagajiji. There were plans for the GREF (General Reserve Engineering Force) to extend the road beyond Nagajiji and three basic wooden huts had been built by their personnel for use in future, these lay empty and inviting. At an altitude of 11,765 ft, there was nothing at Nagajiji but these three GREF huts, a small stream with a wooden bridge over it, a grey sky overhead, and the grey rocky ground below dusted with a thin layer of white snow.
We arrived at Nagajiji in the early evening just as light snow began to fall again, and once our wonder at seeing and playing with falling snow for the first time had abated, the cold began to penetrate our cloak of enthusiasm. One of the empty GREF huts had been turned into our dormitory and had a fire glowing merrily in the fire-place, everyone huddled around it. As we chatted desultorily – getting to know each other, and warmed our hands around steaming cups of Bournvita, PC’s reserve and propah bearing began to melt too.
When the time came to put out the sleeping bags, PC disappeared to change into his night-clothes(of course propah gentlemen carry a separate set of night-clothes at all times, so what if they’re on a trek !), and an apparition (slightly embarrassed-looking) attired in lurid pink-and-white-striped shorts returned in his place. The transformation from venerable PC to loopy bloke was complete, there was no way we’d accept the dignified distant demeanour after that! PC’s range of psychedelic shorts made him the target of much banter throughout the trip, though he tried to deflect the barbs by blaming his daughter to whom he had outsourced the task of buying night-wear for the trip.
PC’s range of psychedelic shorts made him the target of much banter throughout the trip, though he tried to deflect the barbs by blaming his daughter to whom he had outsourced the task of buying night-wear for the trip.
Apart from providing us much merriment, PC provided a true example of grit and determination too. This 50 year old had not just age but gout to contend with, but he didn’t allow it to slow him down. In fact, each day, even if we had to plod through calf-deep snow, he was one of the first to reach the day’s destination ! When we asked him how he managed it, he explained that his joints ached fiercely while walking in the cold snow and walking slowly only made the torture last longer, so he forced himself to walk fast in order to reach camp and the warmth of the camp-fire quickly. Luckily for him, the tortuous walk in the snow lasted only two days.
On the trip downhill, while returning to Dirang town, we spent two nights at a beautiful village called Lubrang at an altitude of 9,344 feet. Lubrang was the perfect place for recovering from the rigours of a trek in the snow – surrounded by the majestic mountains but grass-covered and free from snow, in an area full of rhododendron trees laden with flowers. The village folk were generous enough to let us shelter in the village gompa (in Tibetan Buddhism, a centre of learning and worship, a monastery or temple), a large room with a huge prayer wheel at its doorway, the interior adorned with beautiful thangka paintings on two walls and religious artefacts on the shelves lining the third wall. I was awestruck at the thought of using such a beautiful, sacred and timeless place as our dormitory, and humbled by the large-heartedness shown by the villagers to a bunch of bedraggled strangers. Weren’t they worried that the debris of our trek – the dusty sleeping bags, the backpacks full of dirty clothes, the wet clothes drying on a line, not to mention our unbathed dirty selves –would defile the sanctum in some way ?!
PC was impressed too, and grateful for a shelter that the wind couldn’t penetrate at night, but what really got him overcome with emotion was getting half a bucket of lukewarm water the next day and bathing in the designated open-air bathing area outside. Though he was shivering with cold he broke into song and loudly sang the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers number ‘I’m in heaven’. Trust Mr. Propah to value hygiene over holiness and beauty, and the loopy bloke to express it loudly in song to all and sundry.
Loopy : crazy, bizarre (Merriam – Webster, dictionary)
Bloke : man, fellow (Merriam – Webster dictionary)
To be continued again in the next issue…