While most Dashain holidays were spent at home, in the midst of family members, there was one Dashain I remember that veered from the usual. That was the time I, two of my cousins, and two friends went on a trek up the mountains.
I grew up with first cousins, three boys, one elder to me, one around my age, and the third, two years younger. We all studied in the same school; as it happened, in different classes. We got up at six, and would be trudging our way to the bus stop by seven-thirty. The weather was pretty cool most of the time, Darjeeling being a hill station (pretty famous, too!), and it was never easy getting up early. Then, along with the arrival of the fall, our hearts started to sing a different tune, one of joy and expectation. Dashain was around the corner! Ten days of feast, fun, and frolic.
While most Dashain holidays were spent at home, in the midst of family members, there was one Dashain I remember that veered from the usual. That was the time I, two of my cousins, and two friends went on a trek up the mountains. Now, Darjeeling is surrounded by dales and valleys, and the hills roll on, in the proverbial manner, to distances far beyond the reach of the eyes. In other words, it’s a nice place to go trekking.
One of the two friends had an aunt who lived high up yonder in the blue mountains, growing her own food, raising chickens, pigs, and cows, and making cheese. And having a helluva good time! Well, that’s where we were going. The other friend’s dad was a big shot at the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute (HMI), and we got all our stuff for the four-day trek at easy-on-the-pocket rates from this famous institute’s ample stores. We started off with a spring to our steps, and a song on our lips down to the village of Bijanbari, from where we would head off on seldom-trodden paths up into the mountains. We figured that we would be crossing two mountains, at least, before reaching our destination.
The three-hour hike downhill to Bijanbari was a breeze, but after that, it was uphill all the way. As we hiked along narrow trails, we could feel our rucksacks getting heavier by the minute. Soon, we were at a rushing mountain river that packed some punch, it seemed like, judging from the swiftness of its current. I don’t remember now, but even back then, it somehow escaped logic why we decided to cross the 20-meter-wide stretch of churning water. Anyway, crossing it was the call of the day. So, my older cousin who had quite a reputation for bravado, began to wade across, trailing along a rope as he went.
It wasn’t easy, he slipped a couple of times and pulled himself up with some trouble. By and by, he was standing on a big rock near the middle of the river, and winding the rope tightly around it, signaled for us to start crossing. We did just that, holding on to the rope tightly. In this way, we reached the opposite end, where a sandy beach awaited us. The sky was getting dark, and we decided to camp for the night. Then, as we were lighting a fire, after having set up our one single tent, it started to rain.
Man, did it rain? It came down in torrents, and all of us were soaked to the bone. Apart from the tent, there was no other shelter on the small beach, and the tent was far from waterproof. Well, we couldn’t light a fire, and a lot of sand somehow got mixed up with the rice, and all in all, it promised to be a miserable night. Cold, wet, and hungry. I still don’t remember who it was that instigated the river crossing; I swear, even today, I can feel the misery of that night, and I would love to wring that foolhardy instigator’s neck.
Anyway, morning brought hope of a better day, the rain having stopped in the middle of the long drawn out night full of the sound of hunger pangs, empty bellies growling in the darkness like a train speeding along on iron rails. However, the sun the next morning was bright and welcoming. We put everything out to dry, and grabbed a few pieces of bread and some milk made with powder. And, soon enough, we were on our way. We had to cross the river to get on the right track, can you believe that? Why did we cross the river in the first place? Still don’t know. The route went steeply uphill, and we filed single line on the narrow trail, taking turns to carry the soggy, heavy tent.
Now, rain and forested mountains don’t really go together. No sooner had we stopped for a break, and were leaning against the hillside, when we saw dark black leeches all over our ankles, as well as up on the calves, sucking away to glory. As one, all of us stepped away from the hillside with alacrity. We sprinkled handfuls of salt over the bloody suckers. They fell one by one, and I swear, they all looked like they had had their fill, so fat and plump were they!
This was something that we would be plagued by all the way up to our destination—that promised land of roast chicken, steaming rice, double omelet, fresh vegetable curry, and so on and so forth. Oh, such thoughts actually plagued me more than the plump red suckers’ shenanigans. For I was as hungry as a horse after a mile-long sprint. Really, all that climbing up had taken its toll, and we were running on empty tanks.
We tried making some noodles, but the damn fire refused to light (the forest was as wet as could be), and besides, the noodles was so sandy, it was practically inedible. On top of everything, we were pretty much in the midst of wilderness. So, all we could do was carry on up, up, and up. Came the time when dusk began to fall, and we were groping along on the increasingly dark path. We were desperate to reach our destination, where awaited warmth, comfort, food, and relaxation. But, it was also clear that we wouldn’t be making it that night.
So, we groped along, and soon were groping among tall stalks for balance. Then, my hands fell on something familiar. A corn! Bush and all! Manna from heaven! Now, all of us started plucking any corn that our hands landed on in the darkness. We decided to halt for the night, besides the corn field, on a narrow piece of terraced land. While two of us pitched up the tent, the rest of us got a fire going, and began frying the corn. I tell you, never in my life have I tasted anything sweeter, never mind if the corn was only half cooked.
It rejuvenated us, I could actually feel my blood coursing through my body, carrying protein-rich nourishment to millions of exhausted cells on the brink of starvation. We gorged and gorged on all that delicious corn, too hungry to wait for it to be well cooked. Our bellies were finally full, and we lay out in our sleeping bags, letting the luxurious feeling of sated lethargy wash over us.
Early the next morning, we had a leisurely breakfast (fried corn, of course) and started off for our friend’s aunt’s cottage, which wasn’t far off now. Soon enough we were at its gates, and being welcomed into the house by the pleasant faced aunt. We were immediately ushered into the dining room, where a sumptuous breakfast awaited us—everything farm fresh—from the still warm homemade bread and peach jam and soft boiled eggs, to fresh greens, smoked ham, and roast chicken. Well, we turned into wolves then, wolfing down everything in sight with undisguised delight and ecstatic pleasure.
We stayed the night in a big room in the cottage, the day passing by swiftly, eating, drinking, eating, drinking, eating…you get the picture. The next morning, the friend’s aunt filled our rucksacks with guavas, apples, and oranges, and we set off all fresh and invigorated. The trek back till Bijanbari wasn’t so bad, but then, in the rush to reach our homes to enjoy what was left of Dashain, we didn’t think of stopping to have lunch in Bijanbari, and thus the trek uphill, which took us five hours (compared to three hours downhill), became a race against time and starvation. Again, we were running on completely depleted tanks, and I don’t need to tell you, the leftovers that we had on reaching home was perhaps the sweetest food we had ever eaten. Second, of course, to the corn that dark, dark, night.