Tuesday, 7 July 2015

Walrus on a Surf board! - Surfing lessons and Life lessons in Srilanka

Ok who loves funny animal videos? Raise your hand.
I know everyone does. I mean how else do you kill time in office. * Thank God for Buzzfeed and funny animal vids*

Now imagine this, a big brown tanned wobbly walrus trying hard to get on a slab of slippery ice. Yeah? Funny? Now replace the walrus with the sight of me and the ice slab with a surf board.

That was my first time surfing!

Here I was in Srilanka, backpacking and beach-hopping along the south and south-west coast. How I did it? And which were the beaches I bummed on is another story, a pretty interesting one too but for another time. This story is about why I came to Srilanka. To surf.

Weligama beach
My Instagram feeds had been killing me with these amazing go pro surf pictures of these men with chiselled athletic bodies and all I could do was drool over them. In India, surfing options are very limited. You have some schools in Mangalore, Pondicherry and Varkala but I think that’s about it. It is still evolving but I learnt about these places after this trip. Ever since I had heard about the Srilankan surf scene and the beautiful beaches and the turquoise blue water and the CHEAP exchange rate, I had it on my bucket list! There was no reason for me to NOT go there and give it a shot.

Except, I never swim in the sea. I go the beach and dabble my feet in the water alongside the shy salwar suit clad aunties. Plus you may think I am exaggerating but not even a year back I was nearly about a 100 kgs. Eeeeyeaaahh. True story. I was definitely not my fittest when I thought of surfing. My mind and body, as you can see, do not relate or see each other. My body is still, what I call WIP (work in progress). And on top of all this, I wore spectacles.

Despite all this I went ahead. I researched all I could. I searched the internet for everything and anything related to surfing in Srilanka and surfing for beginners. Youtube, blogs, website, Instagram, you name it!

Finally I had my plan ready.
Step 1. Buy the tickets to Colombo
Step 2. NOT mention the surf plan to my parents
Step 3. Backpack my way to Weligama town
Step 4. Head to the beach and figure the rest out.

I know pathetic planning. But that’s how I did it.

Weligama is a small coastal Srilankan town. It is, so I had read, a surf learners’ paradise. As I went looking for a place to stay, I could see tuk tuks stacked with surfboards. Foreigners on their mopeds with surfboards attached to their side, and sign boards all ready to give you surf lessons. This was a surf town. I could smell the surf. I have no idea what that means but everywhere I looked, I knew I was closer to what I was here for.

The next morning I moped-ed my way to Weligama beach. As I parked the moped, I couldn’t stop smiling. Just like how Goa beaches are lined with shacks or how chowpatthy is lined with vad pav walas, this beach was lined with surf shops. All the shops either rented out boards or sold boards or wetsuits for surfing.

I walked around the beach with a silly smile stuck on my face. The water was blue and the horizon was teeming with people of all ages and their brightly coloured boards. *Perfect*

At the south end of the beach I came across this board which said Surf N Lanka. I knew I had seen this somewhere in one of the internet search pages.

Without a second thought I headed to the shack. While walking I tried to gather all the confidence. I had no clue about surfing, I didn't know what I was going to do, and I didn't even know if I could ever even manage to stand on that board. But as I approached the first guy I saw there, I flashed my most confident smile and asked, “Hi, do you teach how to surf here?”

I wondered if he would take one look at me and laugh out loud with a reply, “Really? You?”

But that’s the thing about Srilankans, they are really sweet, especially to women.

This guy gave me the biggest sparkling white toothy smile which shone against his dark brown skin.


He reminded me of someone. “We rent and we teach. Will get you up on the board with one lesson only.” And he continued talking about how this was the best beach to learn surfing, how everyone around the world has come to learn surfing here, etc etc.

Apparently, he had just got out of the water after teaching some Russians how to surf and was still wearing his cap. Suddenly he removed the cap and out bounced curly brown and blonde hair. I knew it!

He reminded me of Malinga! The kinda- scary looking Srilankan bowler. Again I am not kiddin. And I have pictures to prove it too. His blonde tipped curls bounced as he talked with excitement and the more he talked, the bigger his nostrils flared. I kept nodding my head involuntarily as I zoned out at my own joke of similarity just to be woken up when he quoted the price of the 2 hour personal surf lesson including the board.

500 Srilanka rupees. Did he just say 500 Srilanka rupees!!!! That is nearly about 250 Indian rupees.
It was such a steal!! This was like getting a Vero Moda top in Sarojini Nagar for just 100 rupees!

Quickly I closed the deal. Before he changed his mind and quoted me a higher price. I signed up for the evening class.

The best time to surf here is usually in the morning from around 7AM to 9AM or around 4AM to 6PM.

By 3PM I was back on the beach. Anxious. Excited. Terrified too.

I didn’t have the guts to get into a swimsuit lest show my thunder thighs. So I got into a wet suit and shorts. I learnt that surf boards came in various sizes and material. Basically as you get better, the smaller the board becomes. I was handed over the 8 feet soft board, the largest, meant for beginners.

For an hour, Amma (that was the instructors name…apparently) gave me surf lessons on the beach.

Surf lesson on the beach with "Amma"

Amma lookalike :) Malingaaa!
From figuring out your strong leg to understanding how the center of gravity works to standing up on the board. It was basically a crash course on doing yoga on the board. First you lay flat with your belly button on the center of the board, then start paddling, get into the bhuj asana pose and jump on the board in squat position and try balancing on the board with your legs and hands. I must have done this exercise at least a hundred times before “Amma” agreed to let me try this in the open water.

Now unlike other water based activities, this one has no life jacket. Plus I was wearing my lenses. The only thing I had was my board which was attached to my ankle.

Covering the thunder with the board... 
As I walked with Amma and my board towards the water, the soundtrack of jaws kept playing in my head. Such a wrong time.

The instructions were simple.
Get on the board. As soon as you see a wave approaching, start paddling fast. Keep paddling until you gain momentum and once you are on the wave, jump up and try to balance it out.
As simple as it sounded, it wasn’t. Just getting on the wobbly board with me slipping in all directions was a sight. This was when I felt like a walrus. But I tried and tried until I had bruised myself and had gotten the hang of getting on the board.

Paddling in wasn't so difficult until you feel the piercing pain in your arms the next day.
After countless times of paddling in on every wave, I finally managed a half stand. On my knees. This was an achievement by itself.

Another hour later and after drinking gallons of sea water and hauling myself up repeatedly, there was this one wave.

My wave.

I paddled furiously, and it took me on its shoulders. I squatted on it and it held on strong. I kept standing on it until it died on the shores of the beach. As I stood on the board riding my first wave, I could hear Amma shouting victoriously. His child had just taken the first step.

My first surf lesson was over. As I sat across my board exhausted, looking at the sun go down, I felt jubilation running through my body along with a hell lot of sea water.

Never in my life had I thought I could surf. I was scared. Scared of the deep water, scared if I could do something new, scared about a shark attack and scared about what people around might think. But nobody laughed at me.

While bobbling up and down on the soft golden waves, I learnt it is only your doubts that shrouds what you want in life.  *Original line btw *

Philosophy aside, for the rest of the days I spent in Weligama, I rented out a surfboard every morning and evening until I could. It was physically exhausting but one of the most exciting things ever.

Though I must tell you, I did bruise myself pretty badly.

Today the bruises have healed and the scars have faded away but the memory of feeling the wind running through my hair, the salty feeling on my lips and zipping over the water has been etched in my memory forever.

After many days, I was still pathetic at surfing but I don't mind going back to Srilanka and try surfing again. This time to the Srilankan East coast, Arugam Bay!!!

Tuesday, 16 June 2015

BF or BFF- Test the love with the Triund Trek!!!

They say if you want to know about a person’s heart, travel with them and if you want to know if they love you, climb a mountain with them.

Before you think otherwise, let me tell you this isn't a love story. Like hell no. But then again it is a story about love. Actually it is about this time when I convinced my city-bred best friend forever(BFF) to go on a trek with me to the Dhauladhar range.

How I convinced Tanya to come on this trek with me, only I know. From emotional blackmail to blatant threats, I worked all my cards. And finally when she reluctantly said, “Like yeah ok. Now stop bugging me!” that was the best kind of yes I had heard in a long time.

It was her first trek, so I spent hours scanning websites for the shortest and easiest trek possible in the Himalayas. After recommendations and weighing all pros and cons, we concluded on the popular Triund trek.

Reasons why I chose this trek:

1.       It starts from Mcleodganj. So basically you can club this trek with a laid back trip to McLeod & Dharamshala.

2.       If your friend loves food, McLeod is an easy lure. *From Japanese to Tibetian to Thalis, you have everything*

3.       It is a short and easy trek. 9 KM only which can be completed in 4 hours. Not much I say.

4.       It has some fantabulous view of the Dhauladhar range!

5.       It has no network, no electricity or water. This of course I did not disclose to my friend, until we were mid-way through the trek. *evil laugh*

Since we were just two girls on this trek, I sorted help from a local trekking agency. Vir ji came along with us. He had all the basic logistics and food in place and also provided the tents, since we decided to stay overnight.

On a sunny morning, we started this trek from Mcleod. We were quite excited about it. Really. In our mind we pictured green meadows surrounded by snow topped mountain peaks, hairy gaddi(pahadi/ mountain) dogs licking us silly and some short lived state of nirvana. That’s how the first one hour or so went by. Dreaming of what could be.....

By the second hour, the trek up was starting to get a bit tiresome. And worrisome for me, since Tanya was getting tired because of the heat, the climb & lack of food. Now everyone knows the equation;

Human Being- (Minus) Food + (Plus) Heat + (Plus) Climb= Disaster/ Irritation/ Murderous intentions

Where the hell was the bloody tea shop...

Back in college, sometimes when we got late for lectures, we were forced to skip breakfast. Until lunch break we would only hear her grumbling and her stomach rumbling. I knew how much she hated being starved and worked at the same time.

So far it hadn't got so bad. We stopped every half hour or so to take a break on the pretext of taking a picture or admire the beauty of the valley below. Finally we reached our first tea shop. The short break definitely worked! I saw a faint smile for the first time in the last one hour. Or maybe it was the gaddi dogs who followed the trekkers and were taking a break along with us.

By the third hour, trekkers walking back saw our tongue sticking out and encouraged us to go on. We trudged slowly and rather silently. Afraid to say a word, lest my best friend spent her last bit of energy lashing out at me for manipulating her and getting her to do this horrendous activity.

The eerie silence was only broken by the distant tinkling sound of bells on the approaching mules. These mules are used by the locals to carry everything from food, water & even gas cylinders to the top of the mountain. *I wondered if they would carry her till the camp site.*

The last stretch was really treacherous. It was steep and at some points, we had to clamber on the rocks. At this point, and the only point, where I felt a bit threatened. I walked behind her in the fear that she might just lose her marbles and shove me off the mountain side screaming, DIE DIE DIE!!!!!

Out of the corner of my eye, beneath my serious huffing, I kept an eye on her. Just in case.

But she didn't seem agitated. She walked on silently, occasionally asking that one redundant question, “How much further?”

This time Vir-ji didn't give the usual answer of ten minutes and said, “Just above that corner”.

Vir-ji was a local. Freelance guide. For him Triund was an after meal stroll. I wondered on a scale of 1- 10 how much would he secretly be snickering at our current plight and thinking, “these city girls, tsk tsk..”

Squeezing that extra strength, we continued the scamper till the corner and suddenly loomed ahead the wide range of snow peaked Dhauladhar range. It was magnificent. The view of the range doesn't sneak in slyly but appears suddenly! And if we hadn't already lost our breath getting till here, it would have been taken right away.

Suddenly nothing seemed sore or tired or…ummm…tense, as we gazed upon the mountain ahead together and laid back on the green grass beneath.

The Triund camp-site was actually quite pretty. Sprinkled with colourful tents all over the green carpet of grass, surrounded by the imposing white mountains and clear blue sky overhead. This is the kind of place that inspires you to read a book, take a nap and think about big nothings.

I couldn't contain it any more and finally turned around to ask Tanya, “What do you think?”

“This is nice.” And she smiled. SHE SMILED!

That was all I wanted to know. From how much I know her, “nice” is her expression of saying ‘Super’ or ‘Awesome’! We spent the whole afternoon and evening lolling around, attempting to read or get new profile pictures.

That is when I realized, however nice the place might be, she did this for me. This is what you do for friends. She bruised herself climbing over the rocks, panted all the way up, maybe in her mind, even made plans to kill me. Who knows….! But she did all this for me.

Under the cold starry night, as we cozied into our sleeping bags, I smiled because I realized that she truly did love me, mountain or not. As for me, I was going to live to see another day.

Now I could doze off in peace without worrying about being murdered in my sleep. 

*PS- We are still Best Friends!!!!!

Wednesday, 10 June 2015

Two Golden rules for Roopkund Trek- *Deep Breathing & Baby Steps*

Always ahead of the trek group. The fittest and fastest among all. A few kilometres or a steep ascent doesn't make you break into a sweat. From time to time you turn around to look at the group lagging behind and shake your head in disdain.

No this wasn't me. Not even a close description of me.

This was the guy who was right in front of my trek group and this is me assuming what he must have thought. Because from where I usually was, I couldn't even catch a glimpse of him. I am one of those slugs who is always right behind. More by reality than by choice. I am what people call, every trek leader’s nightmare!

It was less than a month to my birthday. Lately I had been sick of the same city life, same routines, and the same old rituals. I didn't want to celebrate my new year dancing after getting sloshed and not knowing when I got older. This birthday I was supposed to be on a drive which would start at Kathmandu and take me to Lhasa. That was the dream. To bring in the birthday doing something exceptional. You know, one of those once in a lifetime things. Unfortunately, because of the earthquakes in Nepal, all plans had been canned. 

In short, that was one of the reasons how I ended up here. Roopkund trek in May. As per the articles I read and the feedback I got from people, this was an easy to moderate trek. I mean I could manage moderate. But we shall come back to this later.

Here I was, day 1 between Loharjung and Didna village. During the brief it sounded very simple. We go downhill and uphill. Done. Well I did manage downhill but literally had to crawl uphill. By now, we all knew who the “nightmare” of our group was.

I was with a bunch of 15 men. 12 trekkers from various state capitals of India, 2 guides and 1 trek leader. A small group actually. Because of the earthquake in Nepal, many had cancelled their trek. 

The next day also was supposed to be easy day, just an uphill climb and straight ahead to the meadows of Ali Bugyal. By the time I managed to reach on top of the hill, I realized no uphill climb is easy. It wasn't so steep but I huffed and puffed my lung out and prayed for a break every 5 minutes.

But the guide wasn't kidding. Once up on the top, it is just a slow walk onto the vast meadows of Ali Bugyal. A bit of trivia here, Ali Bugyal and its twin meadow Bedni Bugyal make up for Asia’s largest meadow. Vast it was. If I was any rounder, I could have easily rolled on till our camp site at Ali Bu. But this is the point where for once you actually can look up and have your first view of the Himalayan mountain range and peaks like Trishul and Nanda Ghunti.  

Open meadows of Ali Bugyal
Once at camp site, it was the same routine. Quick lunch by 1PM, medical (check on oxygen and pulse) at 3PM, acclimatisation walk at 4PM, tea & snacks at 5PM, soup at 6PM, dinner by 7PM and bed by 8PM. And in between we played UNO. And at the cost of many eye rolls from my trek mates, I would say that I was and am the undisputed UNO champion.

Camp site at Ali Bugyal

I am a city girl, again not by choice, and you cannot expect me to sleep at 8PM. For a while I roll, twist and turn trying to adjust sleeping in the tent strategically placed on the slope of the hill but have no idea when tiredness takes over.

Day 3 of our trek, we walk towards Patar Nachni. The route takes you above Bedni Bugyal towards Ghora Lotani and for quite a while we are quietly followed by Blackie Rambo II. The furry, squishy pahadi dog.

The border between Ali Bugyal & Bedni Bugyal

...and tht is the trail to Ghora Lotani and beyond that hill is where our next destination was..

the fleaball....BLACKIE RAMBO II 
Two days back, while chatting up with the two friends from Chennai, I asked them, what made them come for this trek, pat came the answer, “We wanted to see snow. We have never seen snow in our life!” Well boys, today was the day we would encounter snow patches. And believe me for some random reason I was more excited about these two experience snow for the first time.

But I have to say it was rather disappointing. They saw snow, smiled and looked rather normal. Or maybe that was how they expressed their ecstasy. I wouldn't know.

Bedni kund at Bedni Bugyal

Chennai boys and their first tryst with snow above Bedni 

Add caption
Before I could even finish dissecting the emote of the two Chennai boys, we were at Ghora Lotani. In literal translation this is the place from where all the horses (ghodas) return (lautani) because it is generally full of snow. Ok, let us not glorify them by calling them horses, they are mules but boy they work so hard, I would gladly call them Hercules too.

Break at Ghora Lotani
From here it was all the way downhill to Patar Nachni. In all honesty, I think I liked this camp site way better than the one at Ali Bugyal. It was on the meadows bursting with flora in all colours and had an uninterrupted view of the snow clad mountain. Even the tiny make shift toilet tent had an awesome view and was surrounded by little pink and yellow flowers. Prettiness added to make the lonely business a pleasant experience.

Camp site at Patar Nachni
Now that we are on the toilet topic, when camping you do your business in shifty, could-collapse-anytime type of zip down tents with a small mud pit in the middle. Now it would be your good luck if the pit is deep enough and you don’t get to see the remnants of others disposal. Oh and did I mention, it is dry rolls all the way. After a while I was so shameless, I even borrowed toilet paper roll from the guys in my group who were absolute strangers 3 days back. *trek bonding*

Patar Nachni is an important base camp because all the teams that go ahead have to come back here. And if for any reason, anyone fails to reach the oxygen level of 75 + or wants to not go ahead can also stay here.

Unfortunately we had two trek members who could not join us further on this trek and returned the next day itself. Maybe the fact that our dining tent nearly blew away and the cold due to the snow storm the previous evening became unbearable was enough to change some minds.

After the snow storm at Patar Nachni
This was also the only point where I was in complete doubt about my ability to go further. I did share my concern with my trek leader but somehow he seemed more confident about me which I rather wasn't.

We went ahead nonetheless. 13 of us now. As we slowly clambered on to Kalu Vinayak at 14,000 feet, we chanted just 4 words, “Deep breathing, Baby steps”.

Trail to Kalu Vinayak en route Bhagwabasa
On the way, we stopped a lot. To catch our breath mostly. And every time we stopped, our older local guide Virendarji with his mouth slightly open would quickly scan his eyes and fingers through the nearest patch of grass around. He, like many other local people you would see on the way were searching for the ‘keerajari’. A plant that grows on an insect and is only found in this region when the snow is just about melting. Each of these small plant-insect costs INR 500 upwards. Apparently it is in major demand by the Chinese. Some say it gives you immense sexual vitality while others say it is used as a steroid for strength and goes undetected.

At the ridge sits an old Ganesha idol at Kalu Vinayak temple, blessing all trekkers out on their quest to reach their summit. This was also the place where we got to experience how to use crampons. From here it was just snow till the eyes could see.

Selfie...wait groupfie with the boys at Kalu Vinayak temple

CRAMPONS ON MY FEET!!! SEE??? such saviour they are!
From here to our next camp site, Bhagwabasa it was snow just fields in sight. Undoubtedly, this was the most surreal camp site I had ever been to. Located on the edge of the mountain, it provided a panoramic view of the Himalayan range. 

...another groupfie by our super awesome trek leader- Arjun!!!
nearly there at our base camp at Bhagwabasa!

During the acclimatisation walk at Bhagwabasa, we are supposed to climb the little snow hill behind the camp. And as tempting it might be to slide down, this was by far the worst idea ever. I, along with my 3 layer of quick drying clothes were completely soaked.

In the wet clothes, we had a crash course on walking up, down and sideways on the steep snow slopes. *Not cool at all. Literally.*

*sigh* I wish I could be here again...ahem...minus the freezing cold...minus the altitude. (PC- Sandeep Ratan)
The evening was quickly enveloped in the snow storm and later by the quick conquering darkness. Tomorrow was the day we would make the summit climb. Just the thought gave me Goosebumps, or maybe it was the cold, I didn’t care. It was my birthday the next day too. It was going to be an epic fail or just simply EPIC!

That night was the worst night ever. Not only was sleeping on snow weird, I felt suffocated, pukey, restless, cold all at the same time. I only remember waking up from time to time, switching on my headlamp to take a quick look at the time. I don’t even know if I slept at all. Anyway we had to wake up by 3:00AM. We had to make a move by 4:00AM while the snow was still hard. By 2:30AM I was wide awake and had already made two trips to the rickety bathroom tent on ice. It was freezing cold, and the snow was gleaming under the night sky. It was clearest sky I had ever seen in ages. Unfortunately it was too cold to be standing and staring at the sky. Soon everyone was up having tea and Maggie.

One last medical check. Unfortunately we leave another man behind. Our UNO owner wasn't too well and could not make it ahead with us.

Now it was 12 men and me. Together we move ahead of the other trek group at Bhagwabasa. I guess they were busy with their Bournvitas because that was all they kept screaming through the night and morning.

It was an experience to start climbing towards the summit during complete darkness. The snow was hard which made walking with crampons easier. We tugged ahead slowly and steadily. The cold wind was turning my thoughts into icicles. After a while I could not feel my nose or cheeks.

The distance between the Roopkund summit and camp didn’t look much but after a walking on the snow for a while and experiencing its steepness, it did feel tiresome. Every step seemed like a task. As we walked on it just got steeper and all I could hear was my own breathing.

Snow trail to Roopkund- (PC- Sandeep Ratan)
The pukey feeling won’t go and I was dizzy. Slowly I could see everyone from my team move up ahead until I was the last one, right at the back. It was becoming a struggle. I was 3/ 4 of the way when I realized I could not go any further. It was then our trek leader Arjun came back and literally pushed me mentally and physically to go on. I think here is what differentiates a good trek leader from others. This guy took my oxygen level to check if I was fine. 85. That minute he started telling me about how awesome the view was from the top and how all the guys were waiting for me, how I have got to eat dhalia at 15, 700 feet and how we have to make it up and how we cannot quit now. I think this was the point where I realized that the body only does what the mind wants it to. If the mind gives up so does the body. Somehow my body had given up but my mind just wouldn't. Staggering throughout, with the last few steps I did make it to the top just to be received with a warm welcome from all the guys. It was an insane feeling of achievement. It was here at 15, 700 feet that I not only ate dhalia but also celebrated my birthday. I was on top of the world.

....and finally the whole team at Roopkund!! On your right you can see the kund too. A let down in terms of look, it makes up in it's interesting history.
In the midst of all that celebrations, I nearly forgot about the famous kund. As much hype there is around the ‘Skeleton Lake’, from the top it looked like a puddle and the snow had buried the hundred or so 9th century skeletons which is otherwise strewn around.

But as the law of gravity goes, what goes up must come down. And though I thought coming down would be a cake walk, it wasn't. Ascending from Roopkund to Bhagwabasa to Patar Nachni in one day and then again from Patar Nachni to Bedni Bugyal to Wan village in one day was not an easy task.

Colours of Bedni Bugyal

I limped my way back home. Literally. By the time I finished the trek both my knees were terribly out of shape and my feet swollen. Let me not even talk about the tan that has changed my colour forever. Overall, no way was this trek an easy or moderate one. Definitely somewhere between moderate and difficult and if you are not really that fit, Super Difficult!

All throughout the return journey, as I reach the melting plains of home, I wondered if Virenderji finally did find his keerajari, if the groups after us reached the summit too, if the Chennai boys would come again to see snow and how long before I would be back in the mountains. Some answers I wouldn't know but I certainly hope for the best.

As of now, I have started yoga and running, taking in deep breaths and taking my baby steps towards getting ready for my next summit!

Extra Information:

This trek was organised by Trek The Himalayas. You can find details on this trek and many other awesome treks on their website http://www.trekthehimalayas.com/ or FB page. It was my first time with them and I highly recommend them because as a solo girl trekker in a group of men, everyone from the trek leader to the local guide to the other members of the TTH were brilliant!