The whole camp was woken up at 5.30 sharp by a microphone call. I didn’t get up until 6. Steaming hot chai was waiting to warm us up. I hardly had time to enjoy mine because some angry-looking little man wearing a blue tracksuit soon started blowing frantically in his whistle and shouting “SK8 and SK9, line up!”. SK was for the “Saurkundi Pass”, the highest point in our trek route, and we were the ninth bunch of trekkers that summer. I lined up with the rest of the group for “morning exercise”. I expected some sort of stretching on the spot. Wrong. They had us go for a run first, until we got to a stone field with a clearing, and that’s where we did the stretching exercises. It took a long time for everyone to catch up, gather, etc. The exercises looked quite old-fashioned to me but it was pleasant and I still learned a few interesting moves. The explaining was done mostly in Hindi, the lingua franca that everyone understood, with chunks of English in it. Not quite Hinglish; it’s just that regular Hindi has absorbed heaps of English words. I didn’t do all the exercises, neither did I actually run the whole way, because I was not particularly fit. I wasn’t particularly worried about it either.
We went back to the camp and had breakfast. I was then hoping for half-an-hour of peace but the little man in blue started whistling again. It was time for the “acclimatization walk”. And before that, we had to see off SK7, the group who was leaving the camp for higher grounds that day. We lined up for them. It was like a little ceremony, for the little man in blue -the camp manager, as it had turned out- made a speech to SK7, then they started walking past us. Everyone was cheering and encouraging them in a very good-spirited and friendly atmosphere.
At the beginning of our acclimatization walk were stone stairs. I walked up normally and thought, judging by the feeling in my legs, “What the hell am I doing here? There is no way I can walk up several hours a day!” But I was at the front and I felt the pressure of the 50+ people going up behind me. As soon as I had a chance, I let them all walk by. The last two were Aashish and Varun. I walked with them, this time with a slow but steady pace, and it changed everything. No pain anymore. I could easily picture myself doing the whole trek now.
We would still always catch up with people panting their way up, no matter how slow we walked. Somewhere on the mountain side, we had a break where everyone stated their names, occupation and hobbies so that we could get to know each other. I knew I had no chance of remembering more than 50 Indian names at once, so I didn’t even try (and I do apologize to my fellow trekkers reading this – I didn’t mean to be rude!). The youngest in the group was 16 years old, the oldest about 60. I took the opportunity to tell everyone I was willing to exchange French words for Hindi ones, because so far, travelling around South India, I had learned virtually no Hindi (but you know, it’s not really my fault). Going past a temple and going down the mountain back to the camp, I was already learning Hindi phrases and teaching French. Many had taken me up on my offer.
Back at the camp, a girl in charge of organizing the evening “campfire” (with no real fire for safety reasons) asked me if I could “perform” that night and share some stories about my time in India. I agreed to it.
In the afternoon, the little blue man started whistling again so that we would attend the “orientation class”. It was very boring. The little man in blue obviously liked bossing people around, in a sweet yet slightly irritating way. He told us how to best fill our backpacks, and his advice wasn’t anywhere near what I had learned or done so far on my trip. The word that came to my mind was “old-fashioned” again.
After dinner, it was time for campfire. I wasn’t really sure how the public would receive my stories. All on a joking note but in an honest way, I told them about the garbage: how someone in Iran told me to have a good look at the bin next to us, because I would never see any in India – and how it turned out to be true. I told them how much I get stared at. And I told them that I would kill the next guy who would call me “baby” just because I was a white girl. The crowd did laugh and it went well. I got many compliments afterwards. The only problem was that no one had dared stop me nor had told me how long it was supposed to be, and some last act had to be cancelled. I felt really bad for the guy.The little campfire with no fire
We did the morning run and exercises again. After breakfast we walked to a nearby cliff for some rappelling. After lunch, we were to do rock climbing but it was cancelled due to rain, and I didn’t mind at all.
The little blue man was very strict about exiting the camp, but Aashish and I managed to get permission to go to the next village to get a few missing items. I had my shoes polished to make them waterproof. Aashish had a row with the shoe-man who asked for 10 times the usual prices because I was white. We had a chai and a bidi (Indian cheap peasants’ cigarettes) and came back to the camp.
Just before dinner, we left all our extra luggage in the storage room and they checked the bags to see that they weren’t too heavy.
It wasn’t our turn to organize the entertainment at the campfire, but I was asked if I could perform again. Some people had asked me that day if I could say nice things about India this time. I wanted to do so, but in the end I wasn’t called on “stage”. The girl in charge told me afterwards, embarrassed, that she “forgot”; I have a very strong suspicion that in fact the angry little blue man didn’t find my first performance to his liking and erased my name from the program. It didn’t matter much but I felt a bit disappointed not to be given the opportunity to clarify my opinion on the beautiful country that India is.
The girls in my tent taught me heaps of Hindi that night, and shared scary life experiences they had had. The next day it was finally our turn to leave the camp.
Day 3 (first day of walking)
Morning Sunshine, let’s go trekking
The SK9 (us!) group was exempted from morning exercise. Everyone was very excited to be finally leaving the base-camp. I was the first of the girls in line because I wanted to record the little blue man’s speech for my Himalayan Trek Sound Salad. And since the girls march on first (galanterie oblige), I was the one that led the group out of the camp. The other groups were there to see us off of course, clapping the “YHA clap”, cheering, smiling, wishing us good luck and all the best. I even got a few “bon trekking” and other French words. It’s really a very friendly and enjoyable little ceremony.
The second camp wasn’t actually that far. We weren’t allowed to get there before 4:00 p.m., so we had long breaks in the shade on the side of the road. I had been expecting hours and hours of intense walking and was a bit disappointed. But there was 54 of us (+ 2 guides), and we needed to accommodate for the speed and ability of everyone.
I was glad I had taken my magic backpack instead of the little red backpacks provided by the YHA. It’s very easy to walk with it all day without feeling a thing when it doesn’t have the trumpet and all my little mess in it.
I taught some French, learned more Hindi. In the morning, as we walked through a little hamlet, we had the chance to witness a traditional wedding ceremony. Very strange trumpets were being played – also in the Himalayan Trek Sound Salad – by local men wearing colourful costumes.
At the second break, some people had some snacks that generated plastic rubbish. It soon became obvious that most of the people in our group had no intention of picking up their rubbish after themselves. I didn’t want to tell anyone off, because obviously there is a huge cultural gap as far as nature-protection awareness is concerned in India. I didn’t want to be the know-it-all white girl who tries to boss people around in their own country. But I told my friend Aashish “You know, I am not sure that I will be able to enjoy the trek that much after all. No one seems cares about the environment, they intend to litter this beautiful mountain and that makes me very sad.” As I mentioned earlier, Aashish was dedicated to making sure that this trek would be an enjoyable experience for me. He immediately gathered everyone around him and gave a rather lengthy and very passionate speech in Hindi. Aashish is an excellent public speaker. Every one applauded at the end and started picking up the plastic around. Maybe it wasn’t going to be that bad after all, thanks to Aashish-the-Great .
The weather shifted during the day, as it often does in the mountains. It all started at lunch break with menacingly strong winds, and by the time we arrived at the second camp, “Segli”, a very nasty little rain was falling. We were given chai and soup to warm up. There would be no campfire because of the weather. Our tent was on a slope, which doesn’t make for the most comfortable bed, but at least it was dry. There was no electricity in any of the camps except for the base one, so after a little chat with my very friendly female co-trekkers, we all went to sleep.