Thursday, 30 May 2013

A mountain-top experience - in a valley...

Ever heard of a place called Bandharkot?   Neither did we.  Hardly a place which you would go to if you even knew the name for a holiday - but thanks to our dear friend Edwin Singh's advice, we headed down the mountain for a memorable two days.

That's right, we headed down the mountain.  Why would we leave Mussoorie at the height of summer and go down at least 5000 feet or so?

Well, the big draw is camping next to a stream.   The streams that we have up here in Landour are pretty small.  Landour vicinity streams are minisicule trickles of water - unless you are in the monsoon. Monsoonal Mussoorie has its charms to be sure, but you want to be safely within Shanti Kunj - sipping cups of hot lemonade and munching on brownies, rather than sitting in a soggy tent as a torrent of water gushes underneath you and your soggy sleeping bags make you groan for home.  Yes, you have great 'hiking stories' to tell, but those are best told in leech-less environs.

Aber Freunde, nicht diese Toene, sondern angenemere 

We are no where near the monsoons, in a brutally hot summer, where even Landour had us wanting to drink ice-tea.  And yet we went down the other side, past the excreable blot of Kempty falls, down, down twisting down (past the Gharwal English Medium School where our dear friends and mentors Paul and Lynne Hamilton plan to spend time helping out in the near future), down almost to the Yamuna Bridge.  Almost, because just before the bridge comes into sight, there is a bend at which a road heads back up the valley towards distant Tathoor. 

This is the road we took and a hop, skip and jump away you come to the Aglar bridge - a small span over our beloved Aglar that gurgles in the valley deep down behind Mussoorie, eventually meeting the Yamuna and adding its flow of water towards Delhi and points South and East ...

Bandharkot is the first little hamlet on the road that takes you back towards Tathoor on the other side of the valley.  We stumbled out of the jeep at 8.30 am after the 2 hour jeep ride from Landour.  I looked bemused at the little cluster of buildings up against the road and what looked like no place at all to camp.  But my first impressions were blessedly wrong.

Rule No. 1:  drink chai before you make decisions.  We were welcomed into the Rawat Tea Stall - and ensconced in a balcony which overlooked the river and the other side.  Our enthusiastic host had tea and bun-omlettes our way and was super happy that we wanted to camp out.

Having our dear brother Phil with his gentle smile and wise words only made the time more beautiful.  Within a few minutes we were lugging our stuff down the short walk to the river - and wading across the cold water to the other side.

There is a primal joy in setting up tents.  The deliberation of where to put them.  The vital work of ridding the area of as many sticks and stones as possible (the better to sleep on).  The ooh and aah of the frames going up and our canvas homes getting set.  Mum and Dad once again were blessed by Edwin Singh's family in the two lovely tents we borrowed.  Storing away stuff.  Choosing the cooking site.  And finally you have a new home away from home.  Here is a look at where we were - with the hamlet of Bandharkot on the other side of the valley.

But we were not here just to sit in a tent.  The water beckoned.  And did it ever!

This was the Aglar like I had never seen it.  Though it is the height of summer - the water is cold.  Wonderfully cold.  And it rushes down the rocks in a constant melody of sound.  The bend where we were had this beautiful placid stretch perfect for exploring, and for sending smooth rocks skipping over the surface...

And for swimming of course!

So we maximized our time with the water.  Going back to the river over and over again.

Oh taste the sheer beauty of water and stone.  Of the tadpoles and small fishes.  Of moss and movement of current.  How marvellous a Creator to pack so much beauty into the here and now.  How precious a time to taste and see His goodness in tangible ways.

Take for examples the green shrubs around the campsite.  It was wonderfully strange to be in a small forest of Karriya-patta shrubs (Murraya koenegii) - with some even at tree size!

 And lovely to have a place to explore.  Something totally different.

A place with beautiful water all around.

 The sound of the river pouring over the rocks is still ringing in my ears as I write this.  A steady, constantly changing rush of water that was manna to the soul.

A place where there are still trees.  We were apparently camping on an abandoned Forest Department nursery.  The area was flat and had a peepul tree for shade (something that we needed since we were not in the cool climes of Mussoorie anymore).  But the sheer beauty of each leaf and the never-changing scenery were such a blessing.

As were places where people like Oma could hide and spend quiet time.

Our arrival did not go unnoticed of course.  As the tents came up we had our first visitors - an intrepid group of local kids who wanted to meet and greet.

Over the next two days we got to know them well.  Led by Jyothi - most of the girls were in the 7th standard - and were very happy to make friends with Asha and Enoch - and with Sheba Auntie and Oma too!

The best meeting place was in the water of course - and the girls and little boys were thrilled to have us join them on their favourite swimming hole - and since the water was cold all day long - to warm up on their favourite rock too.

 Adventures like this make you hungry.

And there is nothing better to start off a camping trip than having parathas and egg/potatoe bujia which we brought from home!

However, you don't want to eat only stuff from home.  The joy of camping includes cooking.  Choosing your fire place and making a stove with stones.  Collecting the fire wood (available in plenty and very dry too).  Watching the miracle of grass and leaves burning from a single match and seeing the flames lick up slowly and blacken the bottom of your pot (much joy in scrubbing later of course).

And at the end of it, you have a smokily flavoured cup of coffee - or a pot of noodles - or a morning suji to enjoy out in the open.

Like in the Enid Blyton books of yore - the outdoors sure gives you an appetite.

 And as dusk falls, it is just natural to desire to read aloud.

We had Rudyard Kipling's Kim along with us for the journey - and were transported back into a different time as the dusk turned to dark and the stars came out in bright array.

As we lay back and tended the camp fire, the beauty of the place was amplified by songs of worship and praise to the Maker of all things great and small!  It was the end to the perfect day - with a excitement of a night in tents ahead of us - and very satisfied sleepy heads reading to hit the sacks!

The next morning had more exploring on hand.  After the morning dip and a devotion time, we split up.  Dad stayed behind to read Kim and guard the camp.  Our dear friend Phil decided to do a solo hike up the road to check out the villages in the hills above.  And the rest of us - Sheba, Asha, Enoch, Oma and myself decided to see how far we could walk up the river.

It was slow, deliciously slow going.  Every swimming hole had to be swum in.  Every rapids had to be crossed.  There were stones to be examined and small fishes to look at.  Oohs and aahs as we turned a corner and saw a new set of scenery.

We would have liked to go on and on...

.... but we knew that a jeep was coming to pick us up - and so it was back to base camp for a final meal, swim with our little friends - and then the packing up everything and ferrying our stuff across the river to the hamlet of Bhandarkot... where it seemed an age ago we had come.

 During our stay we had made a number of visits back to Rawat's tea stall and had become on good terms with the whole family - finding out that their eldest son had been in Mumbai for a year before going to the Gulf.   Rawat and his wife were full of mountain kindness (and also happy I think to see us keep purchasing cool fizzy drinks from their fridge).

As we packed our stuff on the waiting jeep, we met Mrs. Rawat's mother - who was visiting for some time from her village - another lovely lady.

And then it was back to the cool of Mussoorie.  A very, very happy family who had experienced the beauty of creation, the joy of being together, the joy of worship in such an amazing place, the memories of new friends, the realisation of just how blessed we are, and the rush of water in our ears.

We are going to treasure our 'mountain-top' experience in this beautiful valley for a long, long time!

Saturday, 25 May 2013

Post Cards from Paradise

More post-cards from Paradise.

To begin with - the sheer joy of waking up to breakfasts like this:

Sheba and Nalini making the perfect wada - with coconut chutney and peanut chutney to boot - and washed down with coffee and paisam.  While outside the sun streams through the windows.

Or would you prefer a more old-school Mussoorie breakfast  heavy on cinnamon buns?

On the 'lazy susan' is a jar of Oma's latest - a tart orange marmalade that is out of this world.

The day the unfolds to whatever needs to be done.

A day hike.  Or a round or two of badminton.  Or a read out in front...

There are always books to be devoured - and a small treasure trove of Tintin and Asterix comics to be chuckled over a new.

But what makes Shanti Kunj special is not the physical beauty itself - or even the salubrious surrounds...  rather it is the wonderful people.  People like our dear friend Phil who we have the delight of having with us!


And of being able to hear stories of old.   This time we were blessed to hear Oma tell us about that magical time in 1961 when she as a young woman in Spain put her full trust in the Lord Jesus Christ.

 Last night, well after supper we had another new twist to Shanti Kunj.

Our own Mehndi studio!

 Under the witty and able hands of Asha, three generations of ladies had their hands designed beautifully!

Can you tell which hand belongs to whom?

And so we send our last postcard of tonight - a picture of Shanti Kunj in the full moon - taken earlier this evening as we came up after attending the Intermediate Concert at Woodstock School.

And so to all a good night (especially the three of us who are going to go up at the midnight hour to watch the Champions League final match between Bayern Muenchen and Borussia Dortmund!  Ole ole ole!

Walking in the woods

 On our very first walk around the top of the hill at Landour we got the following message from a tree:

OK.  So it wasn't from the tree itself - but some kind soul who decided to tell us something on behalf of the trees. 

But the point is well taken.  There is something absolutely wonderful to hear the softest of rustles as the wind moves through a deodar forest.

Being with trees humbles you.

As you walk through these gentle giants you think about all those who have walked the trail before you.  The gnarled oaks with their old scraggly hands make you realise how new you are - and what the lives of the people before you were like.

Then there is the sheer joy of breathing in air which is pungent with the scents of leaves and soil - filling your lungs with Himalayan coolness. 

Sheba and I did a prayer walk earlier today and it was lovely to lift up the issues of our lives to God - and so many of our dear friends who are walking through very hard times - while all around us the beauty of creation filled our hearts with wonder.

What sheer joy to see the variety of species in the late afternoon sun - like here just above Fairy Glen.  Himalayan Maples with Rhodhadendron and Oaks grown up under a cover of Deodar - with the odd fir and blue pine mixed in.

 Even at night the trees can amaze.  Like this Banj Oak reflecting the light of a street lamp at Sister's Bazaar.

As one poet has put it:

I think that I shall never see     
A poem lovely as a tree.              
A tree whose hungry mouth is prest      
Against the sweet earth's flowing breast;            
A tree that looks at God all day,         
And lifts her leafy arms to pray;
A tree that may in summer wear             
A nest of robins in her hair;        
Upon whose bosom snow has lain;         
Who intimately lives with rain.    
Poems are made by fools like me,           
But only God can make a tree.

- Joyce Kilmer (1886-1918)

Friday, 24 May 2013

Sporting Clube de Shanti Kunj

It's hard to beat acres and acres of cool mixed oak and deodar forest for sheer beauty.  The paper tells us that parts of India are as hot as 48 C - which is hard to imagine in the cool air Landour at 2000+ meters above sea level.   And so we drink deeply of the forest air and wander off on little expeditions in the forests each day.

But then again - how many day-hikes can you take?  Especially when you have four very active young people at hand - including Enoch for whom sport ranks somewhere near godliness.

 And so the front courtyard of Shanti Kunj has had its share of sporting encounters over the last few days.

Mindful of my bad back - which I managed to 'throw' the last two years we came up to Mussoorie - I have not launched myself fully into the the melee - but when you have a winsome lad urging all and sundry to hit the court - what can you do?

Last year badminton was all the rage - but the sorry state of the racquets seems to have cooled this season's desire.   Instead - having John and Nalini and the kids here has opened up the door for some basketball. 

 Its wonderful to have a net at a level that you can dunk in without having to leave the ground too much...

But the game of this season is 'baseball' - Shanti Kunj style.   We play on a miniscule diamond, with young and old drafted in and a large softball helping most of us to actually connect.

Teams are drawn up and whole games gone through - with arcane rules like stealing of bases - being carefully learned and practiced.

When we were small, Mum and Dad would take us to Kodaikanal for our summer hols.  One of the high-lights for me was watching the annual baseball game between the graduating class of Kodai International School and the alumni.  It was part of their graduation weekend - and was billed as the 'embryos' vs. the 'fossils.'

History repeats itself.  Here in Shanti Kunj we have two clearly demarcated teams.  The first is made up of the young 'uns -  Asha, Nikita, Enoch and Jasper who called themselves the 'Fresh Ferns'.  The other team is made up of the others!  All us older folks are clubbed into the 'Oldie Oaks' and so our last epic game took place yesterday.

The scoreboard before the game.  No inkling of what was to take place.

When the dust had settled, we were comprehensively beaten - by a score which could never have taken place in a real baseball game - but was all too possible in the Sporting Clube de Shanti Kunj:  Fresh Ferns beat Oldie Oaks by 50 runs to 30!

 And so we add golden memories to the golden evening sun that washes through the oaks around us.  The joy of games on summer evenings.  Vive la sport!

Thursday, 23 May 2013

Family Picture

Each year we take a family shot with all the denizens of Shanti Kunj.  Opa has a series of pictures on his wall which show the progression from year to year.  With our pilgrimmages to Shanti Kunj being an annual event - you can watch them 'grow before your eyes'. 

Feast your eyes on this year's version - plus our alternative shot - and tell us which one should be the 'official' one!

Wednesday, 22 May 2013

Feasting at Shanti Kunj

I write this from the crisp coolness of Mussoorie.  The smell of hot wada and coffee is swirling over to Dad's office where I sit typing this in - telling me that another day of bliss in Shanti Kunj is about to begin.

This is only our third day here but we have already had enough experiences of joy to last for a goodly while.

You barely get through the gate of Shanti Kunj and already the world is a different place.  To start with there are the newest additions to Mum's flowers:

The hugs of Mum and Dad give way to a thanksgiving prayer.  Both the hugs and the blessings of the prayers continue to weave their ways in and out of these days of joy together.  Each annual pilgrimmage to Mussoorie is special - and we are joined this year by our dear friends John and Nalini and their lovely kids Nikita and Jasper.

It's wonderful to experience Mussoorie with the fresh eyes of our closest friends from Mumbai town.

When we moved to the Mumbai suburb of Borivali in 2001 we met John and Nalini and their lovely daughters.  Though we moved on to Thane 11 months later, this family has been woven together with ours over the past decade. What a dream come true to all be together for a few days with Mum and Dad.

And so here are a few shots - mainly of the meals - in the first 2.5 days of our time here to give you a foretaste of heaven (and to remind us when we descend back down to Thane town).

What better way to be welcomed to Shanti Kunj than a lovely breakfast! 

We could barely believe just how quiet everything here is.  The only sounds punctuating the stillness are the rustle of the breeze in the oak trees outside, the contented scrape of another happy eater shoveling scrambled eggs on toast, and the cheery chatter of everyone giving the oohs and aahs of looking out at the mountains.

A lunch of rajma and dal and rice followed at what seemed an impossibly short period afterwards.   The afternoon had us walking around the 'chakkar' to get our feet acclimatized to the hills - and of course an obligatory stop for pakoras at Anil's tea shop in Char Dukhan.

Supper?  Well count on our Oma to make it special.  She has made a time-table to plan for all the meals of our stay with them with Germanic precision - and steeped it all with love.  On this first night - to our delight we were served an amazing meal of lasagne and had it topped off with vanilla ice cream and home-made strawberry preserves.

A night. Sleep that starts to erode at the huge tiredness that hangs on our bones.  And then the bright morning sun of a Mussoorie day.  It's time for breakfast in Shanti Kunj.

And what better way to start the day than with a round of pancakes?  Make that multiple rounds.  Dad manned the electric skillet which has been nursed on its last legs (one broke off long ago) - and which is an inheritance from his missionary parents to us!

 Lunch?  We love Shanti Kunj - but we also love the out-doors.  The acres and acres of mixed oak and conifer forests that cover the hillside beckon us to leave Shanti Kunj and take to the trails outside.  And so we have a bunch of happy hikers tucking into parathas and alu bhaji at Fairy Glen!

By the time we get back, the golden sun is slanting into Shanti Kunj.  Its just the time for a glass of iced-tea for a happy set of weary legs (we are from the plains after all and beauty does not immediately translate into strength).  Its time for a chat on the porch - and for Oma to have a small swing!

And so the happy spiral of love and food and food mixed with love continues.  Each meal an opportunity to thank God for His goodness.  Another celebration of being together after being away for so long.  Another time to ooh and aah at what is set before us.  Or what our eyes see outside the windows.

Mum and Dad's table is a place where many are blessed.  The fare is usually not as eleborate as we are feasting on over these days - we are the recipients of such concentrated love that we are almost breathless - but in each meal the key ingredient served is love.

In years to come - we may forget many a thing - but the feasts that we enjoyed together will linger.

Bon apetit! Prost Mahlzeit!  Dig in!