I am not actually certain that I was handed a book of Jim Corbett’s animal stories together with my weaning food but it must have been close. For the longest time I have read, re-read and loved his exciting and unbelievably empathetic stories of nature, animals and the people of Kumaon. As we drove to Nainital I was thrilling from within as names like Kanda, Champawat, Talla Desh looped around in my head. But once we entered the mall road we stopped up short in shock.
In a manner of speaking. Not that we had much choice. Because it was a long weekend and by the look of it, all Delhi had decided to drop by. And we had to stop since no one was moving anyway.
A bit about the topography of Nainital to explain why this had happened. Nainital is a hill station built by the British to get away from the torrid summers of our plains. Being a hill station, there is more of winding road than flat land here. The one big public car park on ‘the flat’ was full to the brim. As such, most of the cars were standing stock still on Mall road as a few lucky ones up ahead dropped out, either on to the flat – in the rare event of someone leaving to park elsewhere – or onto other smaller roads leading to resorts and hotels. All in all it took us about 3 hours to get past that 2 kilometre stretch and the kids were getting very grumpy. I noticed the sign that said ‘Gurney House’ as we drove to our hotel but stopping and looking was out of the question.
We were headed for the Ayar jungle camp for no other reason than that the place we were spending the rest of our stay at was full that day and we could not find any other place acceptable to all. And now we knew why! Anyway, the turn off the main road to Ayar jungle camp was sharp and steep and frankly scary. As was the rest of the way. Two cars could not pass on the road and if you have not backed-up downhill with a car full of kids and no boundary or protection to your left, just a steep drop, you cannot appreciate my feelings at the time. By the time we reached, my only thought was to never leave till we had to check out. My mother in law was shaken and stirred and in an angry and blaming sort of mood. My sister in law who had chosen the place got the worst of it from her and I must with shame admit that I too was inclined to gang up.
Disappointment was now surging through me in waves. This was not what I had come for. True, it was our fault for not having checked how crowded Nainital would be before planning this trip but this was not at all what I had had in mind! The one place I wanted to visit could not be visited because of the crowds. And what I had got for my efforts was a dingy looking jungle camp where we had to trek for miles uphill in the middle of scary looking jungles just to get to our rooms! Which were tiny log cabins with very basic bathrooms. For which we had to count ourselves lucky – the people in tents had to share!
Trudging back to the main area after a wash up, we found tea and snacks waiting for us. We were not in an accommodating sort of mood but once a few cups of ginger tea and a plateful of hot pakoras each were in us, we all felt like new people. My mother in law going so far as to suggest a shopping expedition to the famous Tibetan market. Since I was still opposed to getting into a vehicle, a way out was found. There was a footpath that cut through the hill face and would get us to the flat in 15 minutes time. The catch was that it was almost certainly too steep for us to manage on the uphill route back. So deciding to hire a cab to get back, on the assumption that the local cabbies were likely to be more comfortable on these roads than we were, we decided to go for it. The walk was most pleasant and passed through a wooded but inhabited area. We made the acquaintance of a number of local hill dogs. While they were friendly enough in daylight, we were informed that after nightfall they morphed into fearsome guard dogs who took their duties very seriously and any strangers wandering that stretch at night did so fully at their own risk. If we had had any lingering plans of returning as we had come, they were speedily discarded on hearing this.
Reaching the flat, we walked almost immediately into the most bewildering alley that was the Tibetan market. To all the world, Tibet is a nation of monasteries, peace and the Dalai Lama. To the street shopping population of India, Tibet is sweet deals on fashion forward winterwear. The matchbox sized shops were packed to overflowing with jackets, sweaters, caps, overcoats and oddly enough lacy lingerie! I have spoken before of my reluctance to jump into holiday shopping so turning a blind eye to the tempting bargains, I dropped into the Naina Devi temple to fold my hands and thank the Goddess for keeping my family and me safe and prayed for her blessings. Not all temples are alike and most famous temples have by now lost the feeling of peace which is what most of us entering places of worship are seeking. Not so Naina Devi. Even with the teeming crowds and tongues wagging away in languages from every part of India to distract, I was able to say my prayer and sit for a minute in silence before I could no longer ignore my kids clamouring for me to pick them up so they could ring the temple bell.
Back on the flat, we saw ‘The Hard Rock Restaurant’ below. The Goddess had clearly heard me and was wanting me to get over the sulks and laugh a bit!