First there's the Stifling heat. Then comes the breeze, and the clouds rumble, sending sparks of lightning, followed by a short but blinding dust storm. Then it rains. The rain washes away everything, it cools everything down.

That's Kalbaisakhi (roughly pre-summer storm / rain) - common in these parts of the country this time of the year. But for me, it also symbolises a situation when we have to confront someone or discuss something really important.

We think about the discussion, play the conversations several times in our mind, apprehend the reactions, and think of the consequences. It almost makes us crazy - to the point that we can't take it anymore. Then we talk. And the reactions are surprisingly cool, all the apprehensions are gone, things are clear, and the world is such a better place to be in.

Both happened here last evening.

Marching past March and Silence explained

First the silence explained: It's not that I don't have anything to write; I have too much to write! Mostly good stuff, some sad stuff, and some really good things that has happened to me. So, I couldn't decide what to write, and honestly, didn't get much time to think about the blog.

Now the Marching past March part:

This morning, as I was walking past a school near my house, the beats of a marching band reached my ears. Even without realizing, I started walking to the beats: left... left... left, right, left! As I soon realized it, it brought a smile to my face, and instantly took me back to my school days. When in class 9, I auditioned for the March Past team, which was a seriously prestigious team in our school, and got selected because of my height (they needed everyone with the same height). Then came the grueling practice schedule, with an Army Jawan coming to train us each day for about a month. We were training to participate in the 26th January Republic day parade, held each year at Red Road in Kolkata. The winning teams, one boy's team and one girl's team, gets to participate in the next year's Republic day parade in Delhi! I would never forget walking with a rod across the back held under the arms to get a straight torso. Or, the practice to raise the feet and arms exactly as high as others in the line are raising. Even the turning of head to the right and salute were practiced for hours. On 23rd January, we participated in a smaller competition just to get our groove going. Then, on the D-day, we marched past the Governor of West Bengal, heads held high, torso straight, legs rising in unison, uniform smartly pressed - a proud bunch. We didn't win the competition, I think National High School stole it from us by putting steel plates under their soles to get a smart clicking sound; but it didn't matter at the end of the day. We did our best.

So, there you go... a post! See you soon!

Ghatsila - Holi khela

The day I returned to Kolkata from Sikkim, I got a call in the evening from a school friend to meet up. I passed, since I was too tired that day. But others from the group, which now includes their spouses as well, met and called me to "inform" that I was going with them to Ghatsila during the Holi holidays. Not request, not ask, but inform! Being the only bachelor in the group has it's own "dis"-advantages :(

So anyway, we took an early morning train to Ghatsila, Jharkhand. It had rained there the night before making the weather very pleasant. We didn't waste much time and a quick lunch later went out to explore the area. First up was Burudih lake, a result of the creation of Burudih dam, a few kilometers away from the town. The "jungle" route was scenic, but not for those with a bad back. We did some paddle boating in the beautiful lake, and moved on to Phuldugri hills. Supposedly quite a number of movies have been shot there, but we couldn't really see why! We did some still photo shooting of our own there and came back to the town. We spoke to a lot of people, and almost all of them warned us not to venture out on Holi day. Apparently, it gets "nasty"! We were a little disappointed at this, since we wanted to see a few more places the next day. But once back to our hotel, we managed to drown our disappointment over a few drinks, and enjoyed ourselves with a lot of singing, eating and talking.
Burudih lake

The next morning, two of us went out to figure out the scene. We were quite surprised to see that at 07:30 in the morning, a shoe shop and a clothes shop was open - that too on Holi! We didn't find a single person with colors smeared on them! So we came back to our hotel, and discussed the possibility of venturing out. But instead of getting ready, we started playing Holi amongst ourselves in the hotel, and made quite a mess of ourselves and the common room. Meanwhile the streets were also full of people in colorful colors. We were pleasantly surprised to see that people weren't going bizzare with strangers on the road. The revelers would ask for permission and then smear gulaal (aabir) or water colors. When I went out to buy some more colors, two of them politely said "Happy Holi", and only put colors on my arm. We didn't see a single water baloon being thrown. The funny thing was, the drunk ones seemed to be more keen on throwing their own shirts up in the air and catching them than throwing colors!
It's ok if you don't recognize me

Post lunch we could have gone out, but since one of us was not feeling too well, we stayed back and rested. In the evening, we played a lot of dumb charade, and really got involved. As you can imagine, there were a lot of dumb-ness in dumb charade, and quite a few laughter champion moments. It went on till late in the night, but still, some of us got so involved, that they actually woke up in the middle of the night to jot down a few difficult movie names for the next day's play!
The hands that played Holi

The next morning, we went to visit the Subarnarekha river. It was more like a stream, and my guess is, it has a lot to do with the Burudih dam holding the water. We lingered there for a while, strolled for a while, had our breakfast, and came back to our hotel for some more dumb charade! Post lunch, we took the train back to Kolkata. Even there, we "adjusted" with others so that we could be in the same seat-cubicle, and played yet more dumb charade!
Subarnarekha river

Believe it or not, this was my first trip with school friends, and it doesn't get much better than this. I am already looking forward to more trips with them. The post trip party is next weekend, where we are sure to discuss a longer trip :)

Walking for Dummies - A case study

Case: How to reach Jureli Dara Watch Tower from Anden Forest Rest House

1. Come out of the Rest House and take the road towards Hilley (opposite direction to Sombarey) - the milestone right in front of the Rest House should help you with the direction.

2. Walk the gently up-sloping, winding road past this very unlikely Mandir (see left), approximately 800 meters from the starting point.

3. Continue with your walk for about a kilometer. At this point, you will reach a sharp curve.

At this point, my friends, I give you two options.

Option 1: The Stairs

a) Look towards your left after the curve, you will see an enticing staircase. Climb it.

b) Once at the top of the staircase, you turn right and get to see another equally steep, and long staircase. Take some deep long breaths and let your heartbeat step down a little, and then climb the second set of stairs.

c) At the top of the staircase, you will find a courtyard. If you are lucky like me, you will see three generations of a family working / playing together there.

d) On asking about the watch tower, they will show you a narrow trail, and warn you that the road is bad. Disregard the warning, and take the narrow trail through fairly dense vegetation. After all, you have the boots that takes you anywhere!

e) After about 200 meters, stop! Look ahead at the small rivulet, and wonder where the trail is. Look back, and wonder where you came from!

f) Curse yourself for not listening to the family back there. Suddenly become a believer and pray, and take a step forward in the direction of what you think is the trail.

g) After about another 100 meters, suddenly see two telecommunications towers. Now feel relieved since one can see these towers from miles away, and hence, in theory you should be able to see clearly from here too. But no, you can't see the watch tower from here. And to make things trickier, the trail tri-furcates from here!

h) Wait... the watchman (of one of the towers) is here. Ask him about the watch-tower. He shows you the mobile tower! Try to explain this is not what you are looking for; you are looking for a tower from where you can watch birds; mimic a bird's flight; it will not work. Ask him instead where the road is. This time he confidently shows you the trail to follow.

i) Take about 50 steps and you see the watch tower right in front of you.

Option 2: The other option

Oh, yes! The second option... well, follow the same road that you have been walking (don't take the stairs), and after about 200 meters you reach the watch tower. It's right there by the road!

This picture is taken from the Watch tower.
Here you can see the two options I have presented.
You can see the last part of Option 1 towards the right
(coming from towards the telecom towers).
The main road, of course, is Option 2.

Sikkim Revisited

The last time I went to Sikkim, in 2007, I fell in love with the place. I fell in love with Gangtok, the Tsomgo (Changu) lake, Nathula pass; places in North Sikkim - Lachen, Lachung, Gurudongmar lake, Yumthung; Pelling in West Sikkim; the people, the food, everything. This time, I revisited the capital of Sikkim - Gangtok, and then visited a totally obscure, non-touristy place near Sombarey in West Sikkim. I went with my Mama, who had some work there, and for me it was a both a complete leisure trip, plus, an eye opener on the practical problems that people staying there face.

For the first two days, we were in Gangtok. To be honest, the last time I went there, I didn't explore the city fully. This time, I went to the "tourist spots" alone and on foot - I think that's the best way to explore a small city like Gangtok. The most noticable change that I saw in Gangtok in the last two years is the beautification process. M. G. Marg - the mall / shopping area has been given a complete make-over with cars banned, flower beds and fountains installed, and plenty of new shops / eating joints. I was told that this beautification is being implemented in all towns of Sikkim (I did see some of it in Jorethang). Plus, there is no plastic packets anywhere in the town, and the footpaths are well marked and with barricades - so that people don't walk ON the streets.
For the next few days, I was in a place called Anden Forest Rest House, near a town (village really) called Sombarey in West Sikkim (alt - around 5000 ft). I was really surprised by the Rest House, as it is nothing like a "Forest Rest House". It is more like a luxury hotel! And neither is it in a forest, although the region around it has a lot of thick vegetation. The place is well known for birds, but I must admit, I could hear a lot of bird chirps, but couldn't see them much. Around two kilometers away was a watch tower, which I visited one morning. How I made that seemingly easy walk difficult for myself is another story :)
Anyway, I did meet a lot of bright young people from the nearby villages who came to attend a workshop, and as I said earlier, it was an eye opener for me talking to them about the practical problems they face. To begin with, two of them walked about 20 kms from Ribdi to attend the program just because the lone bus service was canceled that day. Things that we take for granted in our big cities, like high speed internet, photocopy or a photo print, are unavailable / prohibitively expensive! Even things like stationery are not readily available. On the other hand, some progress has been made there too - mobile network is everywhere, satellite TV is there even in the "forest" rest house, the roads are much better than what they used to be (despite the landslide hazards), and people have work thanks to the rural employment scheme.
I really enjoyed the cold weather there, and the soft sunshine. And yes, the flowers - I knew I was forgetting something! How can I not mention the flowers. Everywhere you go, you see flowers - known, unknown, bright, pale - the entire state seems to be in bloom!
In conclusion, I confirm: I AM in love with Sikkim.