The Incredible Host

Why do I keep reminding myself of this trip? There are several reasons: the foremost being it was among the last couple of trips when we didn’t have to care about applying for leaves to go on a holiday. And then of course, there were 16 of us, to-be engineers in the last semester. Oh, and we could spend out of our dad’s pockets! And there were other reasons which we discovered after reaching there. It was a small secluded village in the north of West Bengal, nested in the tranquil lap of Himalayas. The graffiti on walls depicted the voice of the locals: “Fulfill our demand for a new state: Gorkhaland” but there was not a speck of blood. Peace reigned supreme. This place goes by the name ‘Lolegaon’.
One March afternoon, after lunch, we decided to leave the comforts of the cottage of the Forest Department we had unpacked ourselves in, to breathe the fresh air so lacking in the city we had escaped from. So we walked. Unplanned as it always used to be, in those days. It was sunny but the sun was not cruel. Within ten minutes, we were at a point where the road forked: one towards the market (well, a market in Lolegaon means a maximum of eight thatched houses: two selling food to the occassional tourists, another two cigarette and paan, two handicrafts and souvenirs and two grocery) and the other of which we had no clue. After a short stint roaming about in the “market”, we decided to go for a walk along the path which certainly appeared to be less treaded. One of us pointed,”Look at the board!” We turned to where his fingers pointed: Canopy Walk: 1.5 km. Nodding at once, we had already made up our mind.
Walking along the forsaken path gossiping, we reached another even more deserted place called the “Canopy Walk”. It had a board with its name and a ticket-counter. We’d thought, it would be some fancy park. We were wrong; truly happy to be wrong! The ticket-counter was closed; probably it had closed long back due to lack of tourists. We exchanged glances: “But that doesn’t stop us from exploring the inside, does it?” In a minute, we were inside the vast Canopy Walk. The government had stopped pouring money for maintenance; wilderness sprang forth in all possible directions and magnitude. We were walking inside a forest! Thankfully, we didn’t have hosts fiercer than monkeys or dogs. There was no direction-board. Dogs came to our rescue. We followed them and reached what we called the “Hanging bridge”: a wonderful wooden bridge held by ropes on its sides, made more beautiful by the sheer lack of maintenance. Well, no river had to be crossed; it was simply a bridge that probably saved you from feral creatures who despised heights! We climbed on it gleefully. At the same time, we were skeptical of the bridge’s ability to tolerate our increasing body-weights. The engineers had done a good job- so we could cheer and hoot insanely as we crossed what was to us more adventurous than crossing the famous Ram-Jhula. We sat on a huge fallen tree and clicked photographs! Suddenly, we realized: “There could be more falling ON us!” Thus we fled! On our way back, we picked some sticks and started fighting- oh, nothing serious, we just posed for the lenses.
Relaxing on a fallen tree & posing for a fight!

As we walked back towards the junction where we’d seen the board showing the distance of “Canopy Walk”, another board which had earlier escaped our eyes was “Sunset Point: 1.5 km”. From what we guessed, we still had about an hour to reach before sunset. Enough time. So we set out. It had been 200 meters and we were undecided: two roads diverged and again we were reminded of Frost’s “The Road Not Taken”. We, however, hardly wanted it to make any difference; prosaic that we were, only sunset interested us. And then out of nowhere appeared a dog- a black one. It stopped before us, looked at us and started springing along one of the roads. One of us said-“Let’s follow him. He knows the road.” Some nodded at the idea, smilingly. Others laughed out loud, totally dismissing the thought. But we had little choice. We had to choose one before it was too late. We knew, if we took the wrong one, we could miss the sunset. We followed him.
                                                                     Spot our guide

And it made a difference! We realized that after half an hour (or may be even more) of strenuous trek along a steep narrow track which can barely be separately identified as a route from the dense foliage, but for the generous pathfinder who led us all along the way to the top, ensuring at regular intervals that none of us were left behind in this tremendously exhausting exercise. One of us wittily remarked, “This is 1.5 km of vertical height!” We doubted if we could reach the top before sunset. But, there was no looking back once we had chosen to be part of it. The path, strewn all over by leaves, branches and fallen trees, was almost always inaccessible and we had to make our way through it by tactically using our hands and feet. Eventually, we made it. Felt like champions!
Elated and tired. Never been more tired. The sun was still there- waiting for us. The only reason we figured out that this place was actually the Sunset Point was that there were a couple of benches. Besides the sixteen of us, there was nobody. As we waited for the sun to hide behind the mighty mountains, somehow we gathered strength to “play” that age-old game of Antakshari. Now that’s the advantage of being in a forlorn place; you can sing your heart out. We were so engrossed in our game that we never realized that a couple had also reached there, silently sitting on the other bench, listening to us, arms around each other. They were such a remarkably adventure-loving honeymoon-couple, sharing the victory-stand with us.
As we sat on a rock, enjoying the most pleasant view from the top, I realized that our guide, the dog, was silently relaxing, eyes fixated at the Sun as the sky turned from blue to yellow, then to orange and blood-red before going dark. Indeed, the dog had guided us to the serenest place. I was reminded of the Mahabharata where a dog had accompanied the Pandavas during their ascent to heaven. We were no Yudhisthir but this poor creature had taken the pains to guide us to the gateway to heaven- indeed, what sight is more fascinating than watching the changing colors of nature! We were overwhelmed: we sat still in silence; believe me, it’s a momentous task for a group of sixteen young guys from college; but we did feel a force that calmed us down. The sun only went behind the clouds and it wasn’t the most perfect sunset in technical terms. But, the beauty of the entire setting had left us spell-bound. Suddenly we realized it was getting dark and that we had to tread the same path through the jungle to reach the main road. It wasn’t easy, either. We knew that we had found a guide, of the most unbelievable kind, one who did not expect anything in return. He was the most incredible host, showing us his home around, leading us to a heavenly abode, living true to the cliched- “Atithi devo bhava”- the poor creature upholds to this day in my minds, the philosophy of an ideal Indian host.

This post is an entry under "Incredible Stories!" contest held by Mahindra and Indiblogger.

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