The rainbow spans the entire horizon ahead of me, to the east. The rain has just abated, though it continues to threaten in the form of dark clouds further north. As I sit at the table, munching biscuits lathered with apricot jam and my book for company, the loneliness and the enormity of the plains I am walking on is brought home to me. There is no one to share the rainbow at the moment; it does not matter. Some things are best enjoyed with self, good food and memories of those I love. And yes, good music, that is missing. Nevermind. Far away to the north, I can see the rain pelting down on the plain and the mountains that rise from it. The wind is beginning to pick up as the sun played hide and seek behind the clouds. It might reach us in the night, maybe not. I am learning to live with the unpredictability, live in the moment. It is time to make a dash back to the tent, keep my book away, and fetch the beanie. Soon we will have dinner.
The walking for the day had halted at 4.30 pm. The first half of the day had been very sunny and hot. Reaching the van at lunch had taken a good discussion with Sim about life in Singapore/India, a dash of pep talk to self, a lot of shooting from the camera and some expletives to complete. The idea of seeing the van, a small dot on the horizon at times, and a mirage at others seemed to motivate and anticipation of lunch was indeed a good push in the right direction. Funny how the thought of lovingly cooked food helps me overcome any lows at all times. I’d imagine my Aai had called up a little earlier, saying that she was making pohe, my favouritest snack of all times and inviting me to partake of it. Coming Aai, I’d say, I’ll be there in less than 4 hours. Make sure it’s ready and piping hot for me to eat straight away. Alright, she’d respond, come quick. And my feet would obey. The van became of symbol not of a free ride into camp, or a means of rescue, but it was a symbol of sustenance. I almost always walked into camp expecting to see Aai, standing hand on hips ready to scold me for being late and then proceeding to serve hot pohe. And she was almost always there in the form of Janka, the cook. Where there is a van, there is sustenance.
By this time, typically, we would be 22-25 kilometers down.
The lunch boxes were handed out to all of us. Chris’s lunch had double helpings and we would share what we had left with Faraz. Both of them, fastest walkers, always ahead of the pack, and therefore their need for additional carbs. Peter would be done quickly with his and move to reapplication of suntan lotion. Sim would always help pack up once she was done, sorting the boxes and the tea mugs. Lauren, Flo, Chris and Faraz would go after grazing camels with Albekh to tie them up in groups. I’d some of everything, refolding the camp chairs was my favourite chore. The support staff would also have wrapped up their lunch by this time and Wontok would be busy reloading the van. Sucheta would be putting on her shoes and helping around. Almost all of us refilled our hydration packs with the elixir of life. There were some who claimed to survive on one litre of water a day, but then they met their downfall in suffering from acute constipation.
Agii would help decide where we would camp at by the end of that day. This was always determined by where we would find grazing for the camels. If we had to make camp late one day and early the next, it was only because we had met grazing ground at that point in the walk and that time in the day. A few times, the availability of a water source nearby played an important role in where we stopped. The water source was usually a public well, or a stream of melted snow when we were in the mountains. The van would go and fetch it for us—4 drums full with a capacity of 20 litres each. If the grazing was spread across a bigger area, we would do close to 12 or 15 kilometers post lunch.
The van would drive off after lunch, making sporadic stops along the way and make camp earlier than us. Janka would get the fire going on her portable stove, complete with chimney. The fuel would be dried camel dung from the plain around. If there was no dung, she’d settle for thorns and bramble from the spiky bushes. She used this stove to heat water mostly, for our thermos, for washing plates & mugs and for cooking. For our eager eyes, the blue kitchen tent fluttering in the distance signaled camp. And for me, sustenance. Sometimes the tent would appear too soon. Our hopes would be dashed for it always turned out to be a mirage. With time, we learnt not to believe everything we saw. Or believe everything we heard from people who had claimed to have passed this way before.
The first thing we did after walking into camp was not removing our shoes or throwing away our back packs. The camels had to be unburdened and set to graze. Much was dependant on their cooperation the next day and we had bore the brunt of their distress several times now. The ropes came off, the pack bags we pushed over for the fastest unloading ever. No sooner had we done this, than the camel got up and moved forward to join its friends among the bushes. Albekh usually secured them all with a rope to their foreleg, so that a gallop would be impossible.
The table would be set up with a neat row of camp chairs on either side. A batch of fresh flour biscuits would be frying in the tent, their smell carried over to our noses by the wind. It was so tempting to just go sit at the table, but there were other things to take care of first. Getting the tent up was the next item on the to-do list. As soon as I managed to retrieve my luggage, we’d choose a relatively flatter patch, remove any big stones and unpack the tent. The wind would pick up right around this time, in keeping with Murphy’s law and almost blow us away, tent and all. Just keeping the tent steady would be a challenge. Sim then taught us how we could anchor one side and secure the other with the poles. Soon, we’d have the tent up in no time. There is much to be learnt from this tough girl, the veteran of an Everest climb and a privilege to know.
In went the luggage and belongings, time for a good wet wipe-ing session to get rid of the grime. In the middle of this all, Agii’s voice would carry over-“Tea/Coffee”. A mad scramble to get things sorted, undress, dress for the night, arrange things and make for the table would follow. For those who slept under the open sky, it was simply a matter of getting up and walking to the table. Peter would already be there, downing cups of hot tea. We’d all dig in to the jams, biscuits, chocolates or washing it down with tea or coffee.
I make my way back to the tent, keep my book and come out well wrapped to beat the rising chill. During this short time, the rainbow has disappeared and the sun has come out in full strength towards the west. The wind is still blowing but is no longer strong enough to blow clouds our way. Looks like it’ll be a rain free night, better for those of us who sleep in the open. The setting is made for a magnificent sunset, one of many I have seen so far in this fabulous country. It is close to 7 pm and the light will be around almost till 10 pm. On days that I have slept outside, I’ve always faced the setting sun. It is a great view to look at as my eyes close and sleep takes over. I can imagine my friends and folks in India looking at the same view and thinking of me.
There is sometime between tea and dinner and most of us use it to write journals, taking care of our feet, or logging on the web via the B’GAN. Besides these, I also prefer to walk around, shoot a video of the campsite, and sort my photos.
Dinner is called around 8.00 and those of us, who are not already at the table, make our painful way there. It is pasta today, with cabbage, onion, capsicum and tomatoes. The pieces of dry meat floating in the soup add variety to the taste. People are livelier now, than they were at tea and stories are shared. The expected briefing for the following days never comes and never did.
By the time it is 9.00, we are feeling the weight of the day and our eyes start looking in the distance. It is time to get cozy in the sleeping bag, read a page of two on the iPhone/Kindle or enjoy a last minute coffee. Sleep is quick to come and I believe not even an earthquake would rouse us.
The new day will dawn as early at 4 am, but I won’t have to be up until 6. The glow of the Nite watch will tell me when it is time and I hate it already. Right after I am sitting up, the mat will need to be deflated and the sleeping back tucked in for the day. The change of night dress into walking gear is necessary before I exit the tent. Brushing teeth is next on the agenda, will be followed by dismantling tent, and arranging the luggage for loading. Then it’ll come to my favorite part, you guessed, breakfast. Janka thinks up the most delightful and nutritious items to get us going. And she’s sharp too- plates start coming to the table at 7 am, no later. A quick coffee follows. It is now time to fill up the water for the day, apply sunscreen and get the camels for loading. Loading takes about 20-25 minutes depending on how much cooperation we get and by the time it is 8, we are ready to take on a new day.
New day. Endless possibilities.