A family vacation that turned nightmare. Nishiraj A. Baruah recalls his experiences in one of the many adventure camps that dot the Ganges near Rishikesh
A hurricane lamp in hand, she walks out of the tent into the dark and desolate mountainscape. The sand beneath her bare feet is cold as she hurries across to another tent, hesitates for a moment, and shouts: “Excuse me, hallo, excuse me… do you have fever medicine for kids?”
“No. No fever medicine,” a female voice in British accent answers from within and falls quiet. The inmates must have been spooked out. After all, it’s 2 am in this Himalayan nowhere.
Wifey, hassled and hopeless, comes back to our tiny tent, her baby burning like fire, as our young nanny pours cold water on her forehead out of a jug. At this time of the night, where would we get medical help from? And even if there is a doc somewhere near, how do we carry our 12 kilo two year old? A hill has to be trekked up in the dark and a bridge, frightfully high up over the Ganges, has to be crossed, before we get to our parked car. Should we awake the staff? But what can they do? Will our baby make through the night?
The night is noiseless and never ending. Another three hours to go and it will be visible enough for us to rush out of Leisure Hotel’s Camp 5 Elements, a fantastic place any other time, but not now. It’s 5 now as I wrap my little one in towels and hold her close to my chest. Very carefully, the three of us – wife, me and nanny – assisted by staff members of the Camp, climb the vertical limits, cross the bridge and finally reach Devi. Yeah, that’s how my wife fondly addresses her car.
Away from the clutches of the cruel confines, it feels great to be on the wheels, great to be on the road, great to have hopes. “We shall find a doc soon,” I reassure my usually better half. The early morning fresh air on our faces, I shift gears and off we go — one eye looking for a signboard to a doc’s clinic, a hospital or even a chemist. “You don’t look. You drive. I’m looking, no,” wifey says. I turn back to look at our naughty little angel, now completely lifeless on her mother’s lap. With nothing in her belly, and throwing up whatever little she had, she is a picture of eerie calm – such as I have never seen before. This, even as our nanny, sleepless throughout the night, now shouts with urgency: “Stop, please. Stop the car!” “What??!” I suddenly pull the brakes and park along the hill side. She quickly opens the door and vomits.
The nurse becomes the needy.
Our home by the river
It wasn’t so bad earlier. In fact, we had the time of our lives as we drove out early morning from Delhi to Muradnagar, a UP town. From there you turn left, and an immensely scenic route unfolds like a green carpet. The Neharwala road, as it is called, has paddy fields on one side and the Ganga canal on the left. Basically built for the Kawarias (pilgrims on marathon walk) as a traffic-free shorter route to Haridwar, there are no red lights in this route. Instead, the colour that will tempt you to stop is green.
With greenery all around, every now and then we would stop, either to feed our little Tara or to quench our insatiable thirst for sugarcane juice or shikanji. We had all the time in the world. Thus we landed in Haridwar. Next stop: Rishikesh. En route we stopped for lunch. From here it’s another 33 km to our destination. I drove on. Basi – 3 km, a milestone declared. We stopped and called the manager of the Camp. Another 7 km, he said. Oh, no!
Tired by the long drive, we meandered up the winding roads and there we saw the board. But where was the camp? “There,” a dhabawalla pointed his finger down below. We looked, well, down below: a steep descent, a bridge, a river. And far below by the river were the tents: tiny and triangular. So how do we reach there? “Walk,” urged the dhabawalla. It was with an apology that I looked at my wife.
With a sigh, we started to descend — luggage in our hands, baby on my arms, jagged rocks under our feet. But all fatigue disappears once you are there: Camp 5 Elements is right in the middle of nature. No four walls of a hotel, no luxuries of a resort. Grounded, it’s as close to earth as one can get. And instead of a ‘view’ from a hotel room window or balcony, there we were bang in the middle of a view, our tents right on the river.
We slept like babies over the night. By morning, the gurgling Ganges that lulled us to sleep, now woke us up. A delightful surprise awaited us as we unzipped the tent. You see, we had a visitor! And guess who? It’s the river herself, in all her emerald splendor, at our doorstep to wish us good morning. Beyond, the mountains rose high above. Oh, how I enjoyed looking at my wife’s face.
Our tent had a bathroom ‘attached’. The floor was made of solid river rocks placed on the sand. When you take a shower the water disappears into the sand through the gaps between the stones. The toilet pots were made of wood with a pit below. The tent’s floors were well carpeted. But there is no escaping the sands. It was a cozy feeling in there. Running water was available, but electricity wasn’t. But then you don’t need it. Hot water is fetched by the staff in buckets. There were no almiras to keep your clothes – just hang them anywhere.
Completely floored by the novelty of her new ‘doll house’, our little busybody was now running all over the room, jumping on the bed, rolling on the carpet, screaming ecstatic nothings. And us adults? Well, we became worse than our toddler. How often do you get to stay in a tent?
Call of the sandpipers
Breakfast comprised of hot poori sabzi, fruits and Rodherendam (the commonly found red flower in the hills) juice. Before eating, however, you have to wipe the dishes and cups with napkins. It was simply impossible to keep the sands away. This over, it was time to play: Tara, all of two, was completely thrilled by the ground beneath her feet. To her surprise, her little feet kept sinking into the white sands as she walked. Then, she would just roll over and try to bury her legs with the sandy grains. She had never seen sand before and we let her be, but with a demonstrative warning: “Don’t ruboo your eyes with your handsu, okay” But who could stop our bouncing ball of energy, as she got busy digging holes. The possibilities and little discoveries were endless. It was Alice in Wonderland.
If not the sands, then it was the waters. The Ganges flowed like a lullaby over a pebbled bed. The ripples and the white foam had cast its spell on my little Snowhite. Tara speaks little, so she would point her finger towards the river and scream: “Mammah, mammah there.”
Not wanting to make her unhappy, we took her to the river, a little lifejacket on her little body. Of course, my little squirrel went berserk: Splashing water, sprinkling water… her eyes twinkling, her mouth letting out squeals of delight. I showed her how to throw pebbles. So now she was on a pebble-throwing spree, loving the sound as it dropped, loving the drama the bouncing water provided. The weather was humid hot which is why it was nice to be in the cool waters as we – me, wife, baby and babysitter – went wet and wild.
The pebbles really fascinated Tara. She picked them up one by one, studied them carefully and tried to collect as many of them in her duck-foot sized palms. But alas, they kept slipping out of her hands. So I carried some on her behalf. There were so many of them to collect: Black pebbles and shiny pebbles, white pebbles and round pebbles, smooth pebbles and jagged pebbles. And everytime I tell her, “Now, Tara, that’s enough, let’s go!” she would go hysterical, registering her protest by screaming, shaking her body or crying. “The waters are frozen, baby. You will catchu cold,” we told her. But she would refuse to budge and I just didn’t have the heart to drag her away: she was having the best time of her life. Our 19 year old nanny was equally excited. She quickly rushed back to the tent and returned with a bucket. It was so much more fun washing clothes over the stone slabs than in washing machines.
Under the stars, by a lantern
Camp 5 Elements is an adventure camp: you go there essentially for rafting in the Ganges. You also have rock climbing, beach volleyball and such other activities. But adventure was not in our mind at all. We just wanted to spend some quality family time in the serenity of it all. In fact, since everyone went rafting during the day, we had the luxury of having the whole camp to ourselves. We were out in the open, but it afforded us the privacy one could only dream of: Our own private resort with a personal river. And not a soul to see even if you are dancing around naked.
By evening, however, Camp guests – mostly corporate groups – were back and sat huddled in little groups around bonfires under the stars. Two British families also landed up and started playing cricket. A girl of class 5 shyly came up to our tent with a I-wanna-be-friends-with-Tara look. “Go, Tara, go with her,” I said.
Tara was a handful, and often we were only too happy to get rid of her. After all, we also needed our personal space, our ‘me-alone’ time. So wifey and me would take turns. When I do the running around with my restless little brat, wifey would be sitting quietly on a wicker chair under a garden umbrella, a novel in her hand, the river 50 m away. And when we wanted to be a twosome, the nanny would take over, as we would sit, now talking, now quiet, breathing in the beauty — the romance in our married lives, driven away soon after the arrival of our natkhat intruder, coming back. “It’s bliss,” my wife whispered. Post dinner, when Tara would be fast asleep in the tent, we w’d go for a walk into the sandy darkness (and doing things which couples do) or just sit in front of our tent in the light of the lantern. A perfect ending to a perfect day, I thought, little realising that same time next day, our nightmare was about to begin.
Little life on a string
All this was happening over a period of two days. It was in the second half of the second day that we noticed. Tara was slowing down a bit. She had stopped taking her food, throwing up whatever little she had in her belly, even as she fell silent by sunset, a mild fever on her forehead. The frozen waters, the humid heat must have done it to her. The mood in our tent suddenly turned somber. By midnight, her body was literally on fire, her cheeks red like amber.
Home we brought our baby back
Cut to our ride back home. I drive fast and furious and when we finally spot a red cross with open shutters, we stop to buy ORS and Crocin. An overwhelming sense of guilt takes over me: I’ve made my family go through such an ordeal. “Sorry,” I tell my wife. “But your intentions were good,” she manages to say.
Milestones pass by: Muradnagar 80 km…70 km… 65 km… From Muradnagar, it will take another two hours to be home. And finally we are home, not really in one piece, but in one family. We soon fall into a deep and blissful slumber. Next day, Tara is back on her duckfeet. Thank God, there is no Ganges at our home, the can of Gangajal in the pooja room is no threat.