She vomits. All of a sudden. Without warning. At 120 km per hour, it is a dangerous distraction. I immediately slow down the Elantra to pull up by the roadside. Rush out to open her side of the door and help her out. The McD burger she just had, all but out. The puke is all over her dress; and on the seat. A tubewell right next to where I stop comes in handy. With enough water, I wash her up, wash off the seat covers, change her frock. I am surprised – Tara, my 8 year old, has never been nauseous before while travelling long distance by car. I spray a car perfume. All done with robotic precision. Over, and off we go again. Our destination: A lake with nine corners.
That’s the thing about driving holidays. You can stop anywhere, anytime. Besides, why bother looking for busses and trains tickets from the plethora of options! For local sightseeing all you have to do is get on the car and drive – don’t have to depend on anyone, and just follow your own routine.
An early start off – 5.30 am for the record – from Delhi keeps us in good progress and if the odometer needle has dropped down from 120 to 30 kmph on a few occassion, that’s not because of traffic but because of certain stretches of the road that have lunar craters for pot holes.
Tara, now feeling better, plays the car jockey, belting out Yo Yo Honey Sing’s Blue Eyes and Char Bottle Vodka from her limited playlist. The GPS confirms when I am confused, but should we follow GPS blindly? Sometimes the directions can fox you. I misread a route that makes me drive a mile extra, but we make good time, reaching finally at the KMVM (Kumaon Mandal Vikas Nigam, Uttarakhand Tourism) Tourist Rest House (TRH) at 1.30 pm. Just in time for lunch.
Where the hell is the lake!
Next morning I am surprised by what I see. Or rather by what I don’t. Where the f@#k has the lake gone! It has been there yesterday! Or am I sleepwalking my way through an early morning dream? I rub my eyes. No, the lake – 1,220 m above sea level, 175 ft deep, 983 m in length and 693 m wide – simply isn’t there! All but gone. Vanished. As if it’s an illusion by Franz Harary – the guy famous for making gigantic landmarks like Eifel Tower and Taj Mahal disappear.
And then I realise: It’s the clouds. Descending down upon the lake, it has covered every inch of it! Blending the spectacle with daylight to a point that you can see nothing.
Nine seconds later, its curtains up, revealing the lake in all its emerald glory. “How on earth did you find this place? It’s so beautiful!” wifey, coming up from behind, stands next to me and whispers, her nose up in the air, as if sniffing in the atmosphere. Her nose goes up whenever she is supremely happy.
I guess Naukuchiatal (Uttarakhand) – 7 hours away from Delhi – does that to you. It makes your nose go up.
Off season high
And come to think of it, we have the entire lake to ourselves! All because, we take our summer break when the break is actually over and schools have reopened. Infested with tourists just a week ago, the last of them have left now, off season declared officially, as monsoons hit the shore. “The way I am sitting here and chatting with you, I would have no time to do that last week. Not a moment’s rest with hundreds of tourists all around,” says the guy who operates a trampoline for kids. Besides, you wouldn’t really complain when you get off season discounts that cuts down our room rent from Rs 4,000 a night to Rs 2200.
Govt. accommodation vs. luxury resort
Location. Location. Location. That’s the biggest advantage of govt. run rest houses. TRH, Naukuchiatal is bang on the lake with a view which other luxury resorts in the area such as Lake Village and Lake Resort simply cannot match. Sitting on the balcony with a Tuborg in hand and wifey for company, we spend hours witnessing the ever-changing avatars of the lake – now rain drenched, now misty, now sparkling in sunshine, now dark and brooding under an overcast sky. The colourful kayaks on the lake work like a nose ring on a dusky woman – an ornamental accessory.
Govt. guest houses also serve great food. No Mediterranean or Molecular cuisines here, but the humble desi dishes – puri sabzi for breakfast, mutton curry for lunch, yellow dal for dinner and sometimes khichdi on demand are no-nonsense comfort food for soul.
And when it is served by a staff – most of them from Uttarakhand – for whom hospitality comes naturally , all these taste so much better. Just sample this: Early one morning I look out of the balcony to find someone washing my car. I don’t think I have told anyone to do that. “Did you tell him? ” I ask my wife. Nope, she says. Well, that’s the kind of service you get.
“Look, look papa,” Tara says and sure enough I look up to see, guess what, a magnificent rainbow – her first in her little life. Ah, am I not a lucky dad! To be sharing the first rainbow with her. Next she tells me to climb a tree. Loaded with pears, dangling temptingly, Tara wants me to pluck a few. I jump, but cannot reach them. “I will tell someone to pluck, ok,” I assure her.
And now she runs towards the mechanical bull. She mounts it only to be thrown off, landing on the padded floor. She tries it a few more times, each with the same result. “I hate this,” she cribs, moving on to try something else. In fact, there are no end to activities here for both kids and adults: There are the kayaks to row, the Zorbs to roll, the shikaras to sail and the trampolines to jump. Horses take you around the lake while paragliders fly you over the lake.
But I would rather be in a slowmo, just-do-nothing mode. Waking up to a splendid view followed by a sumptuous breakfast, I explore nooks and corners of the hills. By noon, loaded with lunch, a siesta is a must. Tea and pakoras usher in the evenings; pre-dinner drinks keep you in high spirits, and chats with in-laws keep our little group spanning three generation chirpy. I switch on the Bluetooth Bose speaker to create an ambience, even as we watch the crescent moon – now here, now gone. And yes, we also go for a twilight shikara ride (Rs 600 for the complete round of the lake), our boatman volunteering to play photographer – he knows exactly where to get the best background. Tara dangles her tiny feet onto the water, pop-in-law becomes garrulous; wifey falls silent (her nose up obviously) and me doing what a journo does best: ask questions. Yes, each with his/her own way of enjoying the nirvana that’s Naukuchiatal. At times, me and wifey, holding hands (something that we rarely do) go for a quiet walk in the dark.
It is during one of our morning walks that we meet them. “Have you just moved in? Are you the new neighbours,” a gentleman in his early 60s asks us. We get talking and it turns out the incredibly cute house next to the TRH is his. After retiring from the army, this Colonel has been living here for 16 years now. But why is their house called ‘At Last’ . He deconstructs: “After roaming around the country, we have finally found our resting place.” Their only son, a film editor, is forever travelling. We go inside to find the most magnificent garden. “I am an introvert. I don’t like to socialise. I like to be lost among these plants,” the colonel’s wife say. “I can steal for plants,” she adds. Wifey, a garden lover herself, goes berserk. “What is this one called?” Will this grow in Delhi? Can I pick up some saplings? Where do you source your plants from??” her questions come in rapid fire.
The colonel, on his part, shows off his boy toys: Two Royal Enfield Bullets – one he bought in 1971; the other gifted by his son this year. Now involved with a real estate project, he takes us on a tour of the cottages he is developing, each selling for Rs 60 lakh. Beautiful with big glass facades, these cottages offer sweeping views of the valley beyond. “The house would be all yours whenever you want to come, and the rest of the time, we will let these out to tourists, the profits of which will be shared with the owner,” the colonel makes a soft sales pitch.
Wifey is keen, but does it make sense? Even if you come every month, it would still be cheaper to stay in a fine hotel for the rest of your life than pay Rs 60 lakh for your very own vacation home. Plots are also up for sale – boards on tree branches advertise the fact. With so much of real estate activities, is Naukuchiatal under threat of becoming another Nainital? The colonel thinks not. “Not so early. It will take a very long time for changes to come here. The land here is protected by the government and one cannot construct anywhere one likes,” he says.
One night I wake up with a start by the sound of something breaking. I look out into the balcony to find a monkey. Another one saunters in, lifts the tea cup on the table, drinks the leftover tea and simply tosses the cup down on the floor. “F U guys! Get lost,” I shoo them away, taking all breakables like the glass ashtray and the ceramic plates indoors. These monkeys are a menace really. Once, spotting a packet on my wife’s hand one of them charges, but wifey, thinking on her feet, quickly hurls the pack down on the ground. I rush in to stand in front of the rogue who tries to intimidate me by baring its teeth. Armed with an umbrella, I threaten to bang his head. It runs for dear life.
One more day, please
Ok people, time to pack up and go home. It’s been three nights and four days. But our “aankhon ka taara” has other plans. “Papa let’s stay another day, no,” Tara pleads. “Please, please, please, please!” she insists. I throw a glance at my wife. She smiles, nods. So be it then, as we leave her grandparents in romantic isolation, while Tara dances with such abandon that I cannot but join her.
Not the perfect ending
Next day as I load our luggage on the car, an ancient man with cataract-infected eyes walks in towards me with a bag. “Will you buy some of these? These are from my home,” he says. I look into the bag to find peers – loads of them. How much? “Give whatever, maybe Rs 20!” he says. Just Rs 20 for the whole bag! It’s unfair, “Here take Rs 50,” I offer him. And when he flashes a toothless smile, his cataract eyes twinkling, I just can’t help joining in his little celebration.
But it doesn’t last that long. What happens next totally kills it all.
Waiting for my in laws to come out of their room, I see a TRH staffer holding onto my father-in-law who seems to be making a huge effort to walk, pausing after every step. “What happened?” I step forward.
Suddenly I don’t look forward to the drive anymore. Will he be able to undertake a 275 km long journey back home?
Over 80, he lost his balance in the morning on the bathroom floor and fell. In excruciating pain, he thinks he may have broken his hip bone.