I was coming back from Keylong and it had rained last night. The rain, beautiful Udaipur and mystical Trilokinath Temple had made my day, despite the poor conditions of road. I was cribbing about retard state-of-mind of our government who could not develop proper roads, irrespective of the fact that every year thousands or hundred thousands of tourists come into the valley and help the villagers lift their status of living. The beautiful valley and backdrop of majestic Himalayas made me forget all these issues and I decided to stop at a dhaba in Keylong. I asked for traditional ‘bike trip’breakfast’, aaloo parantha [आलू परांठा] and tea with extra sugar. There I spotted an old man who was looking or rather staring at me.
He looked at me and asked, “Where from have you come?” His tone was harsh and bitter
I responded,” Sir, I belong to Himachal, Sundernagar , Mandi.” And I expected some softness in his voice in the next sentence.
“I am not interested in your correspondence address son, where are you coming from right now?, said he and I continued to have strange sensations in my stomach.
“My bad sir, I am coming from Udaipur, Trilokinath temple. Now I am getting into the Spiti Valley from here.” was my reply which didn’t have any magical effect on him.
He did not speak anything for the next few minutes as he got busy on his phone and I kept thinking about him.
Usually I ‘switch places’ and try to look at a situation from other person’s perspective too but this time I could not understand what was wrong with me. May be my beard, I thought and shrugged.
He can tell me stories, let us give it one more chance and sat next to him, the curious kid inside said to me.
TG: Sir, where do you live and how do you manage when the valley is closed down during winters?
Uncle: How do we manage? We live at your mercy son. You think it’s easy to manage, managing is very difficult here and we often die while managing to live.
TG: Sorry sir, I am unable to understand. If you do not want to talk about it, I am sorry. I got up and asked for one more cup of tea, it was definitely getting bone-chilling inside there.
Uncle: Son, you want to listen. Come here, I will tell you something you won’t forget, ever.
And then he told me something, which I had never thought of, that line of thinking was completely new for me.
“Opening of valley means a lot to us, all of us who look nice and happy people to you, to all the tourists who love clicking photographs with us so that they can show it to their friends. To you, it means getting close to the nature, exploring the unexplored and adventure. To us, it means getting back to somewhat normal living conditions. Sun you see, is important for all of us and we are no exception. You do not have to buy groceries for six months in advance, we have to. But that is not your fault, that is just the randomness of this life and I don’t have any problems with that.”
I was trying to absorb the heat generated by his anger and I asked for my third cup of tea.
Uncle continued, “I lost my grandson last year because of this tourist-season. We were going to Manali hospital as soon as Rohtang opened because that is what we can do when there are no helicopters. The state government cannot afford regular helicopter rides, when it comes to the common public. My grandson held on, he managed to survive when the roads were closed; he managed to hold on when there were no helicopter rides for him. We were hopeful that Dev Rohtang will help us because Gods never fail us. But people like you, the tourists who want to enjoy and have fun made it impossible for our son to live anymore.”
I was still not getting his point and now the dhaba owner decided not to make any tea, as he shared his sentiment and was sitting close to me on the floor. A random thought crossed my mind, what if they attack me and hold me accountable for their son’s death. I tried to focus and not to hallucinate, day dreams they say often become true.
“You come with your big cars, big families and then drive it as if you own the road. Look at Rohtang, what have you done to it? You drive like crazy, you fight to overtake, and you are in a hurry always. You park like crazy, disturb the traffic and how does it affect you? It never affects you, it affects us, and we lose our dear ones. We can’t wait in the traffic admiring the natural beauty with patients for hours. We have to see our dear ones die in front of us. Why? Did you ever think of that? Because your fun becomes our punishment. That little kid died and he could have been saved. We waited for three hours in the traffic and when the traffic opened, there was no life left in him. I hear tourists had blocked the road because they were fighting over a broken indicator or head light, and they were waiting for the insurance guys so that they could get their compensation. I wonder how mother of my son will be compensated.”
And then it became a sad story towards its end, it started to make all the sense. I myself have seen people lining up randomly on their way towards Rohtang. They park vehicles on the middle of the road, without thinking anything. Well, it affects life because Rohtang is just not a tourist point; it serves as a lifeline for the people in valley.
Uncle continued,” You come here every year. Bring plastics, bring beer cans, and bring hygienic packed food, cold drinks and what not. You eat them and don’t even care to put them in the waste basket. Yes, we don’t have enough waste baskets here but can’t you just leave the place as it was given to you? Clean and normal, so that we don’t have to pay for your faults. Every year you Leh bikers wait eagerly for opening of Rohtang. Do you even know what it takes to clear the road? Let me tell you, it becomes hard to tell between skin and leather, that’s how sun burns us when we try to clean the road for you. Have you ever met a BRO soldier who has lost his hands trying to clean the road for you? Have you ever met a soldier who can’t afford to pay for his skin treatment that has become animal like while cleaning the road for you? Well it’s not easy son, it’s not that easy. You can’t drink water from natural sources and then you buy your water bottles, you need beer cans too because you want to stay warm and have full enjoyment. Have you ever seen the pile of plastic bottles and cans that you leave behind when the summer season closes and we try to get back to our normal lives? We never find the place as good as it was in the previous year. And this has been happening since ages. Every year we clean up the road, clean up your trash and then next year you come again. Why is Rohtang sinking, do you have any clue? It is sinking because you care about your well-being. You need clean water to drink, clean food to eat and above that you need polyethene bags to cover your shoes and socks which might get ‘wet’ while you move towards Leh on your bikes. Do you even care to put that plastic back in your bag so that the mountains remain clean?”
I was shell shocked when he showed me photographs of truckloads of plastics dumped at the Rohtang top. I could not even look at the face and hands of soldiers who were busy cleaning the road for me and several others like me. I could not imagine their pain and agony.
Uncle said, “Gods have never failed us son. It is our fellow brothers who have failed us, always.”
And I was standing there dumbstruck and speechless. I promised him that I will not leave this place worse than I found it; I will try to leave it better than I got it or at least help it remain what it was.
And while moving towards the Spiti Valley, an old story came back to me.
“People buy new car and they get emotionally attached to it. They won’t take their car out on the tough roads, will wash it every other day. Would not allow people to step in with bad shoes and make everything possible to keep it new but the car will grow old one day for sure. When it comes to nature, people don’t do the same; they forget that nature too needs care and affection. Yes, you don’t own it but what is the need of owning it. Nature belongs to those who embrace it with open arms. So, next time you go to Spiti Valley or Leh Laddakh Trip, make sure you bring back what is not required there. Because if today you do not care, there would be nothing left for the coming generations to see. Explore with love, do not explore and exploit, nobody wants to be exploited and when nature backfires, nothing remains beautiful. Feel that it belongs to you and what you save today is what you pass on to your kids.”
Things not to do: