Dearest readers, this is a story of how my friends and I, your quintessential urban couch potatoes, end up in the middle of a Himalayan forest road, jogging, at night, and with our feet covered in blood.
It all begins with the eight of us sitting around a giant map Aditya has somehow procured from the nearby bazaar. The place is Jiri, an alpine Himalayan valley in Eastern Nepal. In contrast to the extreme popularity the place has gained from oft-repeated talks about it in the dusty streets of Kathmandu, the actual town is rather humble in size. There are hardly a hundred houses encircling a Buddha shrine, giving the place an aura of surreal serenity. A giant meadow extends from the North end of the town, progressing steadily until coming to a sharp elevation into a mountain. The morning sun peeks over this mountain, grazing through the needle leaves of the forest covering it, through the crisp, cold air of the valley, and through the hotel's spacious windows, landing right onto us.
Even without the sun wishing us good morning, however, we would all be glowing equally bright today. It is after twenty five days of working relentlessly in a nearby village that we've been able to enjoy this retreat. Intending to make the best use of the time we've got, we carefully weigh out the options that the map presents.
"Look at this, guys!", Anupama, the history enthusiast of our team, points excitedly at a cheese factory two hours uphill from the hotel. Considering what we've had to endure during the past couple of weeks, even hours of walking is not that hard of a feat at the moment. But Rohan immediately objects, saying we’ve had plenty of climbing done already, and proposes visiting a glistening lake shown on the map instead. Krishna and I, however, like the idea of 'Lawoti Jharna' much better- a large waterfall within just two hours of plain hike from the hotel. After much thought, discussion and multiple sessions of rock-paper-scissors, we all agree on the fall, and decide to set off immediately after breakfast on Mission Lawoti.
Following the hotel owner's advice, we take a rather quiet road from the west side of the town, lined on either side by forests of pine and juniper. Small brooklets and falls frequently traverse our path, as do occasional blush-red rhododendron trees. After about thirty minutes of singing and taking pictures along the way, we arrive at a crossroad, curiously not shown on the map. The team is divided in opinion on which road to pick, but thankfully, a lady comes walking from the woods right towards us.
"Namaste didi"', we greet her gleefully. Flashing a rather crooked smile, she greets us back.
"We were wondering if you knew the way to Lawoti falls. Apparently there's a fish farm nearby, too, and it's supposed to be along one of these ways..", Anupama asks.
The lady's face twitches into an uncanny expression at first, but then suddenly breaks out in an unexpectedly loud voice, "Ah, here for the falls now, are we? Go this way, of course," She points fierily towards one of the roads. "Just an hour away; my little brother goes there all the time, the falls. It's beautiful, really, with the green forests and all. Nice of you to visit! Hurry along, now!'
With this, she suddenly walks away, leading us in a state of disarray. As per the hotel owner's description, the fall is supposed to be still at least an hour and a half away. Krishna and Neha strongly insist that we wait for someone else to arrive, but I suggest we just trust the village lady instead, and we ultimately decide to follow the path she showed us. After all, everyone knows rural middle aged women are nice, right?
At least, that is what I keep on saying for quite a while along the road, to console myself more than anyone. Nobody seems to notice anything fishy at first. The views of the town are spectacular, and the cool breeze constantly ticking our skin is almost therapeutic. Joking and laughing, we stride along. But when it is two hours already, and the fall is still nowhere in sight, and no house has passed the entire length of the road so far, we all begin to worry a little. Krishna even starts making his I-told-you-so faces at me, but thankfully, another old man suddenly appears on the way. Although Neha is adamant about even talking to another stranger, there is simply no other option for us than to ask for directions.
"Buba, yo Lawoti bhanne jharna jaane kata bata hola?", I ask in as clear a voice as I can muster.
"Lawoti?', he exclaims, "well you're on the wrong side of the hill, kids! Go about an hour downhill, and you'll find a crossroad, and then go uphill from there. You'll reach the fall in another two hours or so."
Nobody speaks anything for a while. I halfheartedly thank the man, and look at everyone apologetically. They do not respond, but start making their way downhill, and I follow. All along the road, Prasanna and Aditya educate me on how I should never trust women, no matter the age.
After forever, the crossroad finally appears. Instead of climbing uphill, however, Prasanna comes to an abrupt halt, as though some sort of a spell has just worked on him. He looks at all of us with his infamous mask-like gaze and utters, "Guys, I'm done. Seriously. That waterfall can watch itself. I'm going back."
We throw a ton of "No, bro!"s, and "Come on man!"s at him, but all to no avail. He struts along the road back to the hotel alone, while we continue forward. Aditya and Neha, being from India, don't have the climbing genes naturally embedded into the rest of our Nepali blood, and are soon left behind. Nevertheless, they are following along steadily with the determination Indians are naturally gifted with. In fact, our concern now is Rohan, the baby of the group. He's started throwing tantrums, constantly reminding us all how hungry we are and how dangerous unknown mountain roads (and ladies) might be.
As though the anti-adventure gods have been listening all along, a massive, muddy puddle decides to make an unwanted appearance right in front of us, swallowing the entire road within itself. With utmost care, Anupama, Pukar, Krishna and I cross it, hopping over slimy rocks. Rohan, however, manages to sink knee deep. "Well, folks, Sayonara!", he shouts, ever so flamboyantly, and hurries back along the road without even giving us a chance to protest.
The four of us (and hopefully Aditya and Neha not too far behind) continue along. It is pretty late in the afternoon already, and we are indeed quite hungry. But being the competitive little kids that we are, we've all taken the constant obstacles we've been facing as a challenge set by the fall, one we hope to win by reaching it before sundown.
Well, dearest readers, I'm sure you've all been waiting for the vampires to show up. Let me tell you, what we're about to encounter are much, much worse. Over the millions of years they've roamed on the planet, they've perfected their art of bloodsucking- often without the poor host even knowing till the damage is done.
In our story, it begins with Krishna noticing blood in Anupama's shoes. There's no sharp object or anything nearby, just a tiny hole in her ankle, and it's bleeding rapidly. Being medical students and all, we turn this into an experiment to find out her clotting time. 5 minutes pass, but she curiously does not stop bleeding. Not quite understanding the problem yet, she cleans the lesion and seals it with some medi-tape.
As she's mending the wound, Aditya and Neha finally arrive. The moment she sees the blood, however, Neha's expression suddenly darkens. "God no, No, NO! This can NOT be happening on the freaking retreat day!"
Seeing the dumbfounded look on our faces, she squeals the devil's name:
"Don’t you see, she got stung by a leech! It probably sucked off all the blood it needs and dropped somewhere on the road. It's a good thing the rest of us are wearing closed shoes."
Aditya looks down on hearing this, and mumbles, "Uh, Neha.., you might want to give your own feet a look."
And lo, Neha herself is apparently wearing sandals only, and has two bleeding stingmarks. Aditya immediately enters his protective mode and helps her with the wound, telling us it's probably best if they return too. We don't argue, especially Anupama, who's more determined than ever to show the waterfall what she's made of.
We hurry along the road. Sunlight is slowly dimming, and it is secretly making us all worried more than ever. But our obstinate, competitive (and clearly idiotic) selves keep us from taking the sensible option of returning. After an hour and a half, we finally see a waterfall.
It is not as big as the one shown on the map, but broad and wispy, making the rocks appear as though they are wearing a veil. We take a few pictures, relieved that we're on the right track. Another fall appears minutes later, this one much bigger than the last. We all jump in to the water, enjoying the cool shower, with Anupama videotaping the whole thing. But all of a sudden, she screams, drawing all of our attention. Her widened eyes are transfixed at her feet- and then we all see it.
Leeches. Hundreds of them, all over the ground, on the rocks, on the grass, and about seven actively sucking off Anupama's feet. We hurry back onto the road and try to get the little critters out, but boy are the things attached tight. Sometimes only the body comes off on pulling, with the head still attached to the skin, while sometimes it sticks itself to the finger trying to pull it away. Pukar, Krishna and I, although initially confident that out sports shoes are good enough to keep those nasty worms away, decide to give our feet a check, just to be sure. Pukar discovers that he's been serving about five of them on either foot, while Krishna seems to have not received a bite yet. I pull my own jeans up slowly, praying under my breath. At first I feel an immediate relief to see no blood, but then it presents itself to me- the biggest one I've seen all day, firmly attached to my sock and trying to slither in. Panicky, I quickly take my shoe off, and then the sock, only to see the bug literally standing erect on one of its ends and rotating its entire body in the strangest fashion. Flabbergasted, I throw the sock away as far as I possibly can, and put the shoe back on.
Even after all this, however, our minds have still not come to their senses, and we decide to continue along. The road is clearly full of those buggers, and to stay safe, Krishna suggests that we walk like we were jogging so the leeches would not have enough time to ride onboard. And thus, on an empty forest road in the middle of nowhere, we four are jogging with bloody feet just to see a waterfall.
Minutes later, the fall does appear, much bigger than the previous one, and louder too. But nobody is that excited anymore, and after what happened last time, none of us even stop to take photographs. We turn back immediately, and jog along, using our mobile phones as flashlights.
The road back is, of course, not that simple either. Apparently all that we have endured today is not enough for the Gods above, and they decide to add another fun little obstacle- fog. Thick, dense fog, erupting out of nowhere. The whole forest gets enveloped in a white coat, reducing the visibility to even less that what it already was, converting the trees into a scene straight out of a Tim Burton movie. We hop along, anyway, through the leechy roads and the giant puddle and the dark, dark pines, deciding it best to look at the massacre on our feet only after we've reached back.
Great are the rejoicings when we return, our heroic tale of fighting vampires already told and retold to the rest of the gang by Aditya and Neha. Pukar apparently had served thirteen leeches that day, Anupama being a close second at twelve, while miraculously no leech in that sea of monsters seemed to have considered Krishna and I to be worth a taste, much to his disappointment. We laugh about it throughout dinner, and sing and play cards till midnight, and finally go to bed, unsure if we want to experience something like this ever again, but glad it happened nonetheless.