The Jeep ride turned into a relentless bump and grind as it hit the riverbed and we were thrown against each other, our elbows jostling, ribs crunching against the side of the vehicle, well rounded cushiony bottoms starting to feel the numbness spread from the constant pounding against the once plush seats that were now worn out and tired. We could feel the metal rods poking and prodding our whole being. We had asked the driver to roll up the canopy since we wanted to breathe in the fresh jungle air. Needless, to say, it had added to our thrill. The warm sun and the chilly breeze played havoc on us. Giggling, laughing like giddy teenagers we surged forward in the jeep in anticipation of our destination, excited, but at the same time apprehensive.
I watched the other 2 jeeps with my kids, few of my friends and luggage disappear further ahead as I asked our driver to stop so that I could take pictures. The jeep came to a jolting halt as the wheels crunched and tilted slightly sideways on the particular stream that we were crossing at that point. There was some nervous laughter as I told my fellow passengers that jeeps have been known to get stuck …” Ha ha, well, it better not.” Said one of my friends.
Our laughter echoed through the rugged terrain of the jungle as we continued, and yes, the wheels did not get stuck to the relief of all. We approached the lodge having driven through the riverbed, which was essentially dry except for a few intrepid streams, which had managed to survive. There were dead trees that I knew would look eerie at nightfall along with bushes and gently rising hills. As I voiced my thoughts, someone piped up that it would be a great place to hold séance later that night. Ah, yes! Why not? Of course, more hysterical, nervous laughter followed. Our driver showed us elephant trails and I am sure, I thought I saw leopard paw prints. Very comforting.
That morning, we had taken the Delhi-Haridwar Shatabdi at 6:45 from New Delhi railway station. After a 4 hour train ride, we had reached Haridwar, where 3 jeeps – a green Maruti Gypsy and 2 white Tata Sumos (India’s national pride and joy) – picked 19 of us and our collection of small to large size luggages. A 45 min bumpy ride in the jeep later, we reached our destination at the foothills of the Shivalik ranges of the Himalayas.
My husband had not been able to accompany us on the trip, so it was my 2 kids and I along with 16 other people, comprising 5 of my high school friends and their families. We were headed to an Eco lodge – an accommodation that was built to cause the least impact on the natural surroundings – called Wild Brook Retreat at the periphery of Rajaji National Park in Uttarakhand, one of the states in the Northern part of India. The park is spread over Dehradun, Haridwar and Pauri Garhwal, 3 of the districts of the state with the River Ganges flowing through the heart of the districts. It is home to elephants, tigers, leopards, Samba deer amongst other animals and about 315 species of birds. We were very eager and looking forward to seeing them all.
It was the first time that I had voluntarily agreed to go to an Eco lodge retreat and that too in India. The drive down the barren, almost dry riverbed reminded me of the other such drives that I had been privy to, through similar surroundings thanks to my Dad, who is a Civil engineer specializing in highways, which meant that we went where no man has gone before, and used to spend holidays at the camp sites of the projects he was working on in different parts of Asia, for example in Bangladesh or Indonesia, but that was a long time ago and life and expectations of kids were different.
The biggest concern had been Wi-fi as we had been packing our bags and discussing our trip to India. For my Dutch born kids trips to India were a novelty and this one was specially exciting as they hadn’t been in 3 years and memories were faint. So when told that they would have no network for 4 days…
“What? 4 days and no Wi-fi? What are we going to do?” My 13 year old What’s app fanatic daughter had gasped.
The 7 year old son echoed right after her. “What? Means no Ipad?”
“Will there be any power points to at least charge my Kindle and Ipod?” was the next level of concern.
“What about my DS?” continued my little tyke.
I looked them straight in the eye and said, “This is exactly why 4 days without any connectivity is good. Explore nature, play with the other kids, read, take photos. There’s lots you can do if you think about it.”
Both had looked at me with the expression that said, “ Mom has finally lost her mind.”
All that had changed since we had boarded the train and they had met the other kids going on the trip with us. My 7 year old had made friends with the kids and was discussing and analyzing Lego Ninjago vs Lego Lord of the Rings, while my teenage daughter quietly observed everyone as she was not only at “that age” but there was no other teen in the group. So, she observed and was making good use of her Kindle with all the new books that her Dad had bought for her just in case she got bored.
As we had chugged along in the train early that cold December morning at 6:45am thoroughly relieved that the train was on time and the infamous Delhi fog hadn’t delayed it, the kids were thrilled to the core when we were served Frosties with warm, bordering on hot milk followed by an omelet. It was familiar to them, they were hungry and ate it all. I chose to take the Indian alternative Kulcha chana ( sour bread with chick pea curry), which I found more desirable. The breakfast accompanied by a flask of tea gave me a warm and positive feel about the entire trip. A good start indeed as I hadn’t travelled by train in India in 10 years and really wanted the kids to have a positive experience and want to come back to explore India.
Well to continue the story, back to the arrival at the retreat, as I got out of my jeep, my kids came running towards me. They had already arrived at the lodge sometime back and were waiting for me impatiently.
“We are at the far end cottage!!”, they screamed.
“That’s fine….,” I said keeping the slight concern out of my voice.
The concern stemmed from the fact that I had heard that this part of the forest had a substantial number of leopards. I must tell you, I am not the bravest soul….I went had a look. It was a quaint little stone cottage with a tinned roof. There were 2 neatly made beds and a little chair and a table. Another bed would be added for us later. There was an attached bathroom. Everything was quaint, neat and clean. Sigris to warm the room and hot water bottles to keep the beds warm would be brought later in the night.
The cottage was at the edge of a little cliff and had a great view of the riverbed. There was a small patio in front. Definitely, a place to sit, enjoy the surroundings, reflect on life and possibly do some writing. It looked picture-perfect and so when asked by my friend, the organiser, if it was ok or would I like to switch to one of the more central cottages, I said,” It is absolutely fine!” with a smile. There were 2 units to each cottage and there were just the 3, set slightly apart from each other. So I thought it would be fine. My kids and I got the luggage in and we unpacked and settled in happily locking the door as we went out. We were told that it was safer that way and I agreed – you never know who or what might walk in! With that comforting thought, we went about exploring our little part of the forest.
The children went off for a walk along the riverbed and played football, while I settled down reminiscing good old school days with my friends on the patio of the cottages, under the comforting warmth of the last rays of the afternoon sun. It was end of December and it can get cold in these parts so we asked the 2 cooks whose services were dedicated to us, to keep a steady flow of chai coming. It was so relaxing, just lounging there, away from the hustle bustle of city life.
Come evening a bonfire was lit and we sat around continuing to exchange stories. Freshly made vegetarian food was served up for dinner. I looked at my kids and saw that they were enjoying the overall experience. Not once had they mentioned Wi-fi and had asked for their Ipads or any other electronic gadgets, instead they sat there chatting and enjoying the company of the other kids, even my daughter had found something in common – pop music.
Later that night, I was a bit apprehensive, though, as we walked to our little cottage in the darkness with a torch in our hands. The trees looked a bit sinister by then – Thank God! there had been no further mention of a séance. I had not seen any form of fencing to protect from the wilderness either. I had to stop my slight onset of panic. I told myself that it’s all good and nothing was going to happen, no animal or a ghost of one was going to attack us. You get the drift of my thoughts. Quickly locking the door behind us, we settled into our beds.
At around 4 or was it 5am, I woke up with a fright. I heard, what felt like an earthquake on my roof and a lot of scurrying and jumping. Flashing the torch on the ceiling I realized that it was a tin roof, and I was very sure there were some sort of large, very large cats jumping on it and was terrified that they would crash through and fall on me! Hoping that they would just go away, I snuggled with my children who slept away peacefully, oblivious to the ruckus. Eventually to my great relief the commotion stopped and I dozed off wondering and hoping they were not leopards or tigers that had come for a visit. As I found out next morning they were Civet cats, harmless apparently…