As I trundled down the hilly road with a carefree gait, enjoying the scenic beauty around me, I came across a group of young men. Quickly, I averted my gaze. Much to my surprise, they greeted me with a namaste and I was left with no other option but to respond. The brief interaction ended here, but what startled me was my hesitation in replying. My apprehensive behaviour made me wonder whether I would have reacted the same way if they were foreigners. Perhaps not. Then why did I feel alarmed by local men? How did I cultivate the behaviour of mistrust? Had living in Delhi conditioned me to look away to avoid lewd gestures? I wasn’t sure. But I knew one thing: the blinkers that I wear whenever I am on the road needed to be taken off. And since I had embarked on my first solo trip to Kasar Devi, Uttarakhand, I should be more open to the world and keep personal biases aside.
I had stumbled upon this idyllic hamlet in Almora quite accidently. Its ‘hippie’ history was more intriguing to me than its religious significance — that it gets its name from the revered Kesar Devi temple. Several hippies thronged this place — also known as Crank’s Ridge — in the 1960s. Bob Dylan was here too and so was Swami Vivekananda, but only to meditate. Over the years, it has become a popular hub for backpackers and trekkers.
My intention wasn’t trekking as I had come here during the monsoon, a time unsuitable for any such adventurous expedition. Still, I was one among few who had dared to brave landslides. Day one was spent mostly in discovering the hidden corners of the village — homestays, general stores, schools and village trails. The flowers were in full bloom and the trees, bathed in fresh dew, seemed inviting. Quietude had descended over the place and it was devoid of tourists. It almost looked as if I had arrived at a party before time. As evening drew close, the stillness of the day was broken by the shrill sound of insects. Their symphony made the walk towards my homestay on a starless night magical.
Next morning, I woke up to the sound of rain. The room opened to spectacular views of the Panchachuli, though a mist of clouds enveloped the majestic hills during my entire stay otherwise. I decided to explore Jageshwar temple next, which was about 35 kms where I was staying. Once the rain stopped, I stepped out, travelling in local buses and jeeps to reach my destination. While travelling, I always use public transport: one, it makes the trip budget-friendly and, two, using public modes of commuting allows one to come out of the cocoon of isolation and mistrust that most city-dwellers have woven around them. I was no exception.
However, my heart sank when I reached the temple, comprising a cluster of 124 large and small stone temples. Mindless construction of shops and restaurants around the temple had clearly disturbed its tranquility. The only consolation was to look into its intricate details and the painstakingly carved human and animal figures on the stones. But the prize discovery of this trip turned out to be a walk from the main road to the temple amid thick deodar and pine trees. While their tall branches kissed the sky, rays of fading sunlight struggled to filter through the canopy of trees. Meditative and quaint, a stream flowing steadily by gave me constant company.
So absorbed was I in the moment that I lost track of time. It was well past afternoon. The frequency of buses and jeeps reduces drastically after 2 pm, I was told, and, as I waited patiently, I struck up a conversation with a local who spoke about the region’s flora and fauna. Time was ticking away and there was no bus in sight. I was getting anxious. ‘Would you mind going with a local?’ he asked. I had no option but to agree. Within 10 minutes, he stopped a young guy on a scooty and I soon found myself riding pillion. We talked nonchalantly, and a soft smile refused to leave my lips until I reached my homestay. Throughout the ride I kept thinking, ‘Finally, I did leave my blinkers behind. Even if it’s only for a day.”
Shilpa Raina is a Delhi-based writer.