TRAVEL, MAGAR DHYAAN SE (TRAVEL , BUT WITH CARE)

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Last month, my partner and I decided to beat the heat and “head to the hills!!!”, a very unoriginal idea, given that everyone plans hill-station holidays during the summer, but our excitement to bike from Delhi-Chitkul was unmatched! We carefully planned our days, booked our stay, serviced the bike, packed and unpacked our things and set off at 4 A.M. from Delhi to avoid traffic. While I was sure we wouldn’t be the only ones heading towards mountain respite, by the time we had crossed Zirakpur I understood how bad the situation really was.

In the age of #Wanderlust, travelling to off-beat (or not) places has become an urgent necessity. We all (including me) want to upload the perfect picture, write beautiful posts, look at mountains, look at oceans, pose with monks and locals, post pictures of food and our feet in cold rivers, #sunkissed #blessed #nomad #hashtag etc. etc., the list is endless! And since affordable accommodation has become a reality, there is really nothing stopping us anymore from ticking places we’ve visited on a map.

I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: there is nothing wrong with travelling. It’s one of the best ways to meet people from various backgrounds, learn their ways, experience their cultures and feast your eyes on natures marvels. However, the whole concept of travel has been turned on its head because anywhere that is NOT our house and surroundings belong to someone else and therefore, can be damaged or polluted because it’s not our problem, it’s THEIR problem. The number of private vehicles on the road to Shimla, including our bike, created such a fume fest, our faces were caked in black soot by the time we reached our destination. It didn’t take me long to realize we should’ve just travelled the old-school way: by bus.

I’d visited Sangla and passed through Chitkul on a college trip in 2010. The villages were relatively small, the locals self-dependent and the only luxury accommodation belonged to Banjara or Kinner camps which were set up along the Baspa river, away from the town. The number of “homestays” that have come up since then is unimaginable.

Ajay Bhandari (27) and his family have always lived on the outskirts of Sangla village in their old-style, Kinnauri wooden cottage surrounded by a sprawling apple orchard. Usha, his mother, tended the farm and orchard every day when the children were small while his father, Amar Singh worked at the Himachal Road Transport Corporation. With his sister married and his younger brother working in the city, Ajay wakes at the crack of dawn and begins his long list of chores for the day, initiatives he takes on his own. Seeing their neighbors sell their farm lands for a hefty price over the years, they decided to put their own cottage on Airbnb and partake in the tourism wave that had begun to hit Sangla around 2004.

Ajay, Usha and Amar Singh Bhandari in front of their cottage.

The growth of tourism has, however, been a double-edged sword for the locals from Sangla and Chitkul. While the money coming in has been good, the increased number of people visiting the valley has led to an increase in littering and pollution, markedly visible changes in climate, the effects of which can be seen on their apple produce and local crop. Excess snowfall this year ruined Ajay’s apple harvest, forcing him to depend on secondary sources, like tourism, to earn a living.

For Om Prakash Negi, the idea to set up ‘Hindustan ka Aakhri Dhaba’ or ‘The Last Dhaba of India’ in Chitkul was a God send. In 1999, when the last inhabited village on the Indo-Tibet border was slowly gaining recognition, Negi set up a little stall, catering to the few foreigners who visited. Unfortunately, Negi’s last dhaba isn’t the last dhaba any longer, beaten by a couple more along the river, going as far as they were permitted to, to set up. His desperation is apparent, relentlessly seeking investors to expand his business by building a few rooms. By the time his dream is realized, there may not be any space for rooms left.

While the need to construct so many hotels, to keep up with the number of tourists flocking to the hills every summer, is still conceivable, what really made me furious was the way some tourists behaved. The river, lined with cars carrying vacationers from Delhi and Rajasthan, has become a dumping ground. Some recklessly throw their soft-drink bottles into the flowing water, while some blare loud music parked next to a school still in session. Garbage disposal, which was never a big problem because the locals dealt with their own waste individually, is now a travesty. Raveena, a young woman who cooks and provides home-made meals, says her father was approached for the purchase of their small farm, but he refused because the Goddess forbade it. Only the Goddess knows how long they’ll resist selling their land in the face of poverty. The increasing number of tourists in the valley is forcing the state government to blast the mountains with explosives and widen the roads, which in turn, increases the number of landslides, one of which we were stuck in. The fear I felt in that moment, when I saw the rocks above me shudder under the impact, still gives me sleepless nights.

The point of this rant, at the end of the day, is to request everyone who plans on travelling anywhere in India or internationally to travel carefully. Firstly, respect the locals and their space. You may be on vacation, but they still have to wake up early and get to work; it is their home after all. Engage with them and seek permission before barging into their houses and temples, clicking their pictures or playing loud music through the night.

Secondly, it really, REALLY isn’t that much of an effort to avoid littering. I mean, do we eat chips and drink beer and throw the wrappers and cans on our floors at home? Why is it so easy to pollute places we don’t call our own? This blatant recklessness on our part really needs to stop because the snowy peaks and blue oceans we flock to in big groups to see may not stay snowy or blue for very long. I’ll take this opportunity to quote a very popular phrase doing the rounds these days: “CLIMATE CHANGE IS REAL, B#T@H!”

Lastly, because I know I’m beginning to sound very preachy but the trip scared the living daylights out of me, please use public transport! The state buses run efficiently and on-time, except when a natural disaster occurs, like the landslide I was witness to. The recent traffic jam in Shimla was yet another example of the chaos that ensues when we all decide to ‘drive’ or ‘ride’ to the mountains in the name of adventure. Maybe, we’ll learn from it, maybe we won’t.

And maybe, when we’re posting our incredible #travelgram pictures and posts, we can remind ourselves to be honest and show the stark reality of the places we visit and the impact travelling has had on them, especially hill-stations, rather than post glossy, photoshopped images. Witnessing what we’ve done to nature could force us to be more responsible.

(I urge you to follow the page: https://himachalwatcher.com/ for daily, realistic updates).

The Dog Lady of Malad

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MIRA DEVI SHETH

I have always marvelled at some people’s ability to devote themselves whole-heartedly to the caring of animals, especially those who take strays under their wing. Naturally, when I heard 85-year-old Mira Devi’s story, I immediately wanted to write about her, document her work so that her efforts are recognised. I began filming her and realised that if there is one firebrand in Malad who is willing to take on anyone who challenges her, it’s definitely Mira Devi Sheth.

Mira Devi Sheth on her evening round.

The first time I saw Mira Devi was during my exploration of Malad when I had just moved here. She was nestled comfortably in an auto-rickshaw, surrounded by buckets of food, supervising the feeding of Evershine Nagar’s stray dogs. The dogs, needless to say, excitedly flocked around her awaiting their evening meal. In her words, she has been doing ‘dog seva’ for 50 years.

Born in 1935, Mira Devi lived with her parents and two sisters at Grant Road. She was an extremely accomplished young girl with a business acumen, trained at the Nashik Bhonsle Military School in swimming, horse riding, shooting and lathi daav (stick fighting). While in college, she enrolled in stitching, typing and telephone operator classes to widen her horizons and secure her future in case of any problems. And, problems she faced.

She was hurriedly married off at the age of 22 through a family arrangement and sent to Orissa. Within 15 days of being wed, her mother-in-law began harassing her for a larger dowry which persisted for two full years. In 1957, when Mira gave birth to a son, the harassment got so bad that she left her husband, took her son and returned to Bombay for good. But, things didn’t get any easier. As a single-mother, she knew she had to work really hard and bring up her son in the best way possible.

Between the years 1963-64, she worked discreetly for two rival cloth mills in Mumbai, without either of them ever finding out. Always on the move, she used her travel time on the local trains to study various subjects, including journalism and business. Apart from taking care of her son and paying for his schooling, MiraDevi spent a lot of her free time taking care of the strays around Grant Road, but with limited medical knowledge and contacts. She also started her own stationary supply and printing business on the side, saving enough money to buy herself a small apartment in Malad.

Mira Devi and her students at the primary school. 

She moved to Malad in 1977 to escape everyone constantly nagging her about her failed marriage and the fact that she was raising her son single-handedly. She and a friend started a private primary school for poor children in her living room which ran for 12 years till her son got married and they had to accommodate his family. It was only when her son gifted her a book about caring for dogs that she began her ritual with the strays of Malad full-swing. Now, 50 years later, if her son disagrees with her activities, she is quick to remind him that it’s all his fault. Her association with the National Association for the Blind for 20 years and the primary school are proof enough of Sheth’s spirit of kindness and love.

An old photograph. 

What began with 5 stray dogs has now grown into a family of 500. Mira Devi has developed an intricate network within the sprawling suburb and is always on call, especially when it comes to abandoned and homeless dogs. She is associated with SPCA Mumbai as well as the neighbouring veterinary hospitals and has admitted a number of sick and injured dogs using her own finances. Over the years, as her commitment to the animals became more serious, she sold all her gold jewellery her mother and sister gifted her to pay for the increasing amounts of food she had to buy.

There has, however, been opposition on all fronts. Be it the local dada of Malad who (according to MiraDevi) went around murdering dogs in order to rob houses minus the ruckus they create with their barking or the BMC who, in 2008, put a fine of Rs.500 on the feeding of stray dogs and birds in public places. But, Mira Devi found a way around all these challenges, continuing to feed the animals to this day. She is afraid of no one and is still, despite her age, willing to fight anyone who tells her she’s wrong. In her case, at the end of the day, the heart wants what the heart wants.

There is a certain spirituality connected with Mira Devi’s dedication to her animals. An ardent follower of Sathya Sai Baba, she bestows a great deal of faith in the love she receives from these animals – an emotion most humans find difficult to express. What others see as a hindrance, she sees as God’s work and this is exactly what motivates her to step out every evening and feed every single stray in the locality.

And, she is not alone. She is accompanied by Raj, her current auto-rickshaw driver who owns 40 cats in the neighbouring slum and whose mother cooks the meat that Mira Devi buys specially for the dogs. Due to religious constrictions, Mira only prepares the vegetarian portions and outsources the meat preparations. Suresh, Raj’s younger brother is a kung-fu trainee and animal lover who joins him in the evenings to help the old lady. There are several little boys and girls from Raj’s slum who join her whenever they can, their fondness for the dogs blatantly apparent. But, as beautiful as this simple act of kindness is, one is acutely aware of the money that goes into this elaborate plan. “It totals up to 60 thousand rupees a month, with the food and auto expenses and the boy’s salaries.” Mira, however, doesn’t believe in hiding away her savings, donating it all to the cause.

Mira Devi with Raj, Suresh and the kids. 

MiraDevi has faced every obstacle with the obstinacy of a determined child. Her only fear at this stage in her life is the fate of her dogs when she passes and this gives her sleepless nights. She is extremely aware of her mortality and doesn’t shy away from it, which is probably why her heart soars when she sees some of the society folk follow in her footsteps. “In my life, I regret nothing,”she says, mirroring a fact I’m absolutely certain of from all the time I’ve spent with her.

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HAMPI, HAMPERED.

WARNING: This is not a travel post. This is an informative post, so you aren’t bullied like I was.

Hampi is a geological wonder. It is visually stunning and the ancient temple structures situated around the Tungabadra river are simply astounding. The place had been on my travel list for a really long time and I finally made it there two weeks ago. (Yay.)

This piece, however, is NOT about Hampi or the temple structures – which if you google, you will find tons of information about OR you could just go there and see for yourself this amazing wonder of nature. No, seriously – how those rocks manage to stay stacked up on each other is, plain and simple, awesome.

I am going to focus on the boat rides that ferry tourists across the Tungabadra, which separates Virupapura Gadde (or Hippie island) from the more religious (party phobic) Temple side (Hampi). I have to say that no matter how beautiful the tourist spot, if the transportation systems are bad, your whole experience can go to the dogs.

At the entrance to Virupapura Gadde stands a barely visible board that lists the rates for ferry boat rides and coracle rides, respectively.

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Rates for Ferry and Coracle rides.

Even Hampi’s Wikipedia page states: ‘The ferry boat is available at the river side near Virupaksha Temple. Ferry trip costs Rs. 10 one-way and usually stops by 6 PM, depending on the crowd waiting to cross over. Coracle rides are available at INR 50 per head throughout the day and are available until 9-10 PM. If you don’t like getting your feet wet in a coracle, ensure you don’t miss the ferry.’ (http://wikitravel.org/en/Hampi)

Didn’t mind the wet feet, but the prices were steep! The boatmen are bullies who have a massive monopoly on the operations of the ferry boats and coracles, leaving the tourists helpless and without choice. The ferry boats charge between Rs. 50-100 per head, depending also on the number of people in the boat. If the total head count is less than 10, the boatmen can choose to postpone (or cancel) your trip across the river. I say boatmen, because they all gang up against you and travel, in the boat, with you to make sure you don’t run off without paying the quoted amount. I kid you not.

These guys also assign specific boats to each side – for example: Boat 1 will go from point A to B and Boat 2 will go from B to A, but never the twain shall meet. Confused? Basically, the boat that brings tourists from Hippie island to Temple town will go back to Hippie island empty because that’s against their rules. Wasting petrol, however, is a hobby.

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The Ferry Boat that refused to move.

My friend and I faced hell when we got stuck on the wrong side of the river after a long day’s walk. No matter how much we begged the boat guy to ferry us across, he just sat there, smoking his cigarette, waiting for the boat to fill up. It eventually did not fill up and we had no choice but to pay a hefty sum, dying of hunger and ready to pass out.

And then there are the coracle boats. Don’t even get me started on the coracles. Yes, I sat in one. Yes, it was fun. But paying 200-250 bucks for a 45 second boat ride was the biggest expense on an otherwise, fairly budget trip.

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Bad picture of a coracle.

The people in the area say that due to some illegal land dealings, as far as Hippie island is concerned, this issue has remained largely ignored by the government, who’d rather let these boatmen operate how they want than get their hands dirty.

Hampi is a truly lovely place. I swear. Besides this one (major) issue, the trip was perfect. There is plenty to gush about, but nobody talks about the smaller problems that can really bust everything good about a place you’re visiting. Hence, this post.

Let’s hope this is looked into very, ‘ferry’ soon!