To move, to breathe, to fly, to float,
To gain all while you give,
To roam the roads of lands remote,
To travel is to live.
– Hans Christian Andersen
The first time I took a flight was the summer before I turned twenty. I flew to New Delhi from Chennai that May and after a Himalayan tryst flew back a fortnight later. Nowadays flying has become commonplace that teenagers are blasé about taking multiple and long-haul flights. Yet, at the turn of the millennium, it still was a big thrill. And I was fortunate to forever associate my first flight with ‘Summer and Travel’.That summer I flew escaping the scorching Chennai heat [Agni Nakshatram – peak summer] for a Himalayan Odyssey. My mother and I met up with her former roommate, Dr. Chanda, and her son at the nation’s capital and then took off on a multimodal journey along the tourist trail in the Himalayan foothills. We met up with Dr. Chanda’s relatives, sometimes staying with them, sometimes having them show us the gems off the beaten path.
I had just completed my first year of college and that summer break was a great way to recharge from the rigors of the transition from a school girl to a college-going adult. Traveling by train, by bus, by taxi we made our way from Dehradun to Mussoorie to Nainital and finally onto Almora all in the then newly formed Himalayan hill state of Uttarakhand.
While the rest of my family was baking in Chennai’s soaring summer temperatures, my mother and I were donning sweaters, jumpers, shawls, and flannel to stay warm in the cool Himalayan summer. One memory that stands apart was being blown away by the flavors after tasting litchi for the first time. After that, we were ordering chilled litchi juice at the various tourist attractions and buying bunches of litchis from every other roadside seller. I was equally blown away by the magnificent and massive red brick building of the Forest Research Institute. And within its pretty exterior, there was so much know-how on sustainable forestry and afforestation even so long ago. It’s sad that despite knowing how vital our forests are to our survival (not to mention vital for water security) we continue to play ducks and drakes with it. We even stopped for photo-ops in front of the famed Doon School.
Another highlight of my Himalayan Odyssey was the privilege of getting a tour of the LalBahadurShastri National Academy of Administration in the other Himalayan summer retreat of the British Raj, Mussoorie. It’s where trainees of the Indian Administrative Service go to become full-fledged pillars of the Indian Civil Service. The views of the snow-capped Himalayas from the institute and the greenery all around left me spellbound. It remains a cherished memory to date.
Later, we were blessed to reach Nainital when the moon was nearly full. Despite a hair-raising bullet-fast night-bus journey, Nainital was breath-taking at night – the Queen of the Hills dressed in all her jewels for a fabulous evening on the town. The moon, the lit hills reflected on the lake all made for a very glamorous welcome. Though it was the worrying lines of fire, lit to prevent forest fires, which were eerily beautiful dominating the hills that remains uppermost in my memories of beautiful Nainital.
Finally, in Almora, we stayed in a wooden two-storey traditional hill home. It was there I met a DRDO scientist, the daughter-in-law of our hosts, who was home recovering from a fracture. It was inspiring to a Chemistry student like me to see a woman scientist in the employ of Government of India working on developing instant foods for Indian scientists serving in the Antarctic Station.
From Almora, we took a day trip to the ancient temple of Jaageshwar. It was set amidst a deodar forest with massive twin trees before the temple that is said to produce a characteristic rustle when the wind passes through them. Deodars are actually high altitude trees, but despite this being just the foothills of the Himalayas, they grow near this ancient temple. There is a belief among the locals that when you hear that song of the wind, a funeral procession will arrive shortly (side note: Jaageshwar is a temple of Lord Shiva – the god of destruction in the Divine Trinity atop the Hindu pantheon and generally there are graveyards found near his temples).
Despite trips to the usual tourist traps, it was these gems off-the-beaten-track highlighted by our local guides and hosts and their warm welcome in the cool climes that remain our most cherished memories. My summer Himalayan Odyssey is one of the best trips in my life. It was life-changing and inspiring, the places, the people and the multiple modes of travel all while escaping the merciless Chennai summer. A slice of paradise – a summer break in the crown jewels of Uttarakhand!
[Dedicated to the memory of the Late Dr.Chanda Pandey who passed away in March 2019, she cheerfully guided us on this summer odyssey across the foothills of the Himalayas.]
Author Bio –
Raakhee Suryaprakash is a Chennai-based writer, editor, and analyst. She has a master’s degree in International Studies and an undergraduate degree in Chemistry and is associated with civil society organizations such as the Red Elephant Foundation, Chennai Centre for China Studies & Climate Tracker. Her short stories and articles have been published widely both in print and online media.