Maya on a Ride
“Phew!” The end of another hectic day, thought Maya as she got into the Air India jetliner at the airport in Dubai. She was there to attend a series of meetings for the ‘Marino’ fruit juices company she worked for. Once in her seat, she glanced at her mobile.
“I’m at the IGI airport, waiting at the arrival terminus,” flashed Sakshi’s message.
Maya and Sakshi were members of the allwomenfriends.com, a site that encouraged women from all parts of the world to mingle and have fun. They had never met except for the chatting they did quite often. From day one they had hit as a great pair with similar goals and perspectives.
As the jet picked up speed, gliding high above the skyscrapers, the white fluffy clouds peeked through the windows. Maya leaned back in her seat, a busy marketing executive she traveled a lot. Her next set of meetings were at Paris after two days.
Sakshi had suggested that she spend the two days in India. ‘Had she been too eager to meet Sakshi? Had she been a complete fool to let a six month old friend to make arrangements for her in India, a country she had never been too? Not that she doubted Sakshi’s tour planning skills, but she wasn’t acquainted with her at a personal level as to spend a holiday with her. She should have been more pragmatic.’ Confused, anxious and entangled in her own thoughts, Maya didn’t realize when the jet touched ground.
Landing in Delhi she picked up her baggage and made her way to the arrivals lounge. Scouring the crowd apprehensively, she spotted Sakshi clad in jeans and a white shirt waving at her.
Folding her hands, “Namaskar! Welcome to India! Sakshi, your guide and friend at your service.”
Laughing at Sakshi’s dramatic act, Maya hugged her and asked, “Where to now?”
Aware of the anxious look on Maya’s face, “Why are you so tensed? Now that you are in India, just relax. I promise you won’t be disappointed.”
“I know, I know,” murmured Maya.
It was eight in the evening; they had dinner at a restaurant and took a cab to the railway station. Delhi in May was like a furnace with soaring temperatures and salty sweat trickled down their brow. The cabbie was kind enough to run the air-conditioner at a chilled temperature.
The journey to the station was much longer than she had expected. Sakshi chatted non-stop as Maya listened. Conscious of her uncertainty Sakshi alleged that they were going to a much cooler place and that she would enjoy the pleasant trip. She even assured her that she would be in time to catch her flight to Paris.
Maya felt embarrassed, her feelings been transparent for Sakshi to read through. As the cabbie accelerated, she could make out from the cab window, the dry dust fluttering in all directions. Despite such tropical weather there was heavy traffic in Delhi.
Sakshi rattled, “Summer time is vacation time in India. Evenings are cooler than the days. Adults and children enjoy an ice cream bar or a juicy treat outdoors with equal gusto.”
They were just in time for the 10:45pm Ranikhet express. They boarded the A/C coach of the train. For a while Sakshi was engaged in a friendly banter with a fellow Punjabi passenger.
‘Hmm! The spirit of Delhites wasn’t dampened by the hot and sultry weather. Their upbeat and energetic mood is praiseworthy. But she had enough for a day,’ sighed an exhausted Maya drifting into a deep slumber.
“Maya! Wake up!”
“Oh God! Why is it so cold?” rattled a rather shivering Maya as Sakshi tugged at her blanket.
Putting on the jacket from her bag, “It’s just six in the morning, too early. Which place is this?” groaned Maya.
“It’s Kathgodam. Hurry up we still have an hour’s bus journey ahead,” informed Sakshi with excitement up her sleeves.
“What? Are you crazy, I had been traveling continuously? I need a break,” complained Maya.
“I know dear! You have to travel the whole of today too. Come on now or we will miss the bus,” teased Sakshi.
“Trust me, you won’t regret,” added Sakshi trying to appease an agonized Maya.
Helpless, Maya followed her out of the train. The temperatures were cooler there, maybe because of the hills thought Maya. They occupied the front two seats on a luxury bus.
As the bus picked up speed, the temperatures dramatically dropped further. Sakshi offered her a scarf to wrap around her head. The windows were open and the chilly morning wind played with her blond curls. The bus bellowed as it clambered uphill.
The verdant hills never left them as the bus zigzagged through serpentine rocky terrain. The morning sun beamed on her face as birds chirped and sun-bathed in the meadows.
Vibrant colored blooms and butterflies lined the periphery of the road, as though a prismatic carpet was spread to welcome them. Seated near the window, Maya enjoyed the landscape. Her doubts vanished into thin air and she forgot fretting. The bus stopped on a busy street.
“Welcome to Nainital! The Queen of Hill Stations and Lake district of India!” announced a jubilant Sakshi.
“Great! It’s mesmerizing,” Maya chimed in.
Other tourists and locals too got down.
“Rickshaw!” yelled Sakshi.
A man pulling a tricycle came near them. Maya had read about rickshaws, but hadn’t ever seen them.
“Maya get on the rickshaw; it is just a ten minutes ride to the place. It’s a narrow muddy road where vehicles cannot go.”
Though the ride was bumpy, Maya marveled at the way the man pulled the tricycle. She gazed at the beautiful houses perched atop the hills. They got down at a lovely wooden cottage balanced on a couple of rocks.
“This is ‘Tilak Villa’ my ancestral home. None of us stay here now; it is maintained by the locals. As children we used to spend our summer vacations here. Nainital is an exotic and adventurous place. Especially for kids,” bubbled Sakshi.
Sakshi’s eyes sparkled as she thought of her childhood. Her effervescent nature seemed to speed up at the sight of the jaded hills. Maya warmed to Sakshi’s childhood days.
“Amazing! Wonderful!” exclaimed Maya taking in the antique décor of the place.
“Save your praises for the rest of the day. I’ve booked a jeep to take us around. Come let’s freshen up.”
In less than an hour they were ready. An open jeep suitable for rocky terrain picked them up.
They stopped at a roadside dhabha (eatery) for breakfast. They had rotis with palak dal and raita. Though the food was spicy, nevertheless Maya enjoyed it. She imitated Sakshi, licking her raita coated fingers. The food was filled with the local flavor that lacked in the restaurants they visited in the cities. Having food seated on wooden benches under the trees was a new experience for Maya. Groups of laughing thrush entertained them with their noisy banter.
The jeep journeyed through rugged country roads, Sakshi took on the task of a guide – “Nainital is a hill station in the Kumaon foothills of Uttarakhand. At a height of 2,084m, it was a popular summer retreat and health resort, during the British rule. Even now a major chunk of its economy is dependent on tourism alone. The deep valleys and meadows are home to diverse flora and fauna. There are orchards of apples, pears, peaches, strawberries…”
“Oh! Will we be going to the orchards?”
“I’ve picked up only a few important places, as we are short of time.”
Maya nodded. Their first stop was the Naini Lake, a holy lake. It was an exquisite lake; the reflections of the nearby hills could be seen in the crystal clear waters. They rented a pedal boat at the dock and circled in the whirling turquoise waters of the lake. The birds swooped in the waters to catch fish. Admiring the breathtaking scenery, they clicked plenty of snaps.
The jeep zoomed ahead as the driver released the clutch. The howling wind joined the orchestra. Next they reached the 'Naina Devi temple’ on the northern shore of the lake.
Paying their respects at the shrine, they headed to the aerial ropeway at Mallital. Within minutes they reached the main attraction of Nainital – Snow View Point at a height of 2270m.
“Wow! What a splendid view – the snow capped Himalayas,” burst out Maya.
“The tall trees are Oak, Kaphal and Pine and higher up are Deodar.”
The picturesque view of the majestic mountains, dense forests and the mountain streams flowing in the valley was awesome. They tried to capture the bountiful nature with their Kodak. By the time they reached Mallital it was way past lunchtime and they had Chinese noodles at a food stall.
“Naina peak or the China peak is the highest peak, worth a hike up there. Maybe on your next visit,” detailed Sakshi.
Maya nagged that Sakshi was purposefully putting off everything for another visit. Sakshi laughed at her and asked her to stay back for another few days. Maya sulked and made a face. She brightened at the sight of trotting horses.
“Why don’t we take a horse ride?” pleaded Maya.
Glancing at her watch, “Fine, but a very short one,” agreed Sakshi.
After the ride they hurried to the villa to change and pack up. The jeep zoomed and took them to Kathgodam to catch the 8:40pm Ranikhet Express.
Maya’s short stay had been terrific, carrying memories locked in her mind. She was eager to share them with her friends. And she promised Sakshi to come back again for a longer stay. ***