The bottle of beer arrived, chilled to the perfect temperature. But we had to order quickly, for it was close to three in the afternoon and the kitchen was closing. And I was quite hungry. I hadn't had anything substantial the whole day, most of which was occupied by the time wasted at Arunachal Bhavan trying to get an inner-line permit. That I never used the permit now makes the time wasted there all the more missed. I ordered the first thing I spied on the menu and Vaibhav said that he was not very hungry. I first met Vaibhav when I moved to Nodia after college. We worked together at the same place for about a year, before I returned to Bangalore. That it had been close to two years since I had last spoken to him, seemed at that moment immaterial. It was like as though I had never left Noida. And eventually, it was time for Vaibhav to return to work, and me to head back to Delhi. As we waited for the bill to arrive, Vaibhav asked me where I planned to go next. Jammu, I said, but there was no plan as such. And then he proposed a plan. He and a couple of his friends were headed to McLeodgunj for the weekend. If I had no plan, I was welcome to join them. They were driving out there in a friend's car and there was place for one more. I nodded. And we planned to meet up the evening next day at the bus stand at Kashmiri gate in Delhi.
I arrived at Kashmiri gate on the last train only to see a message from Vaibhav that he and his friends would be there in ten minutes. Ten minutes later, with me comfortably tucked into the back seat of the Hyundai, we set off. An hour into the drive on the highway to Chandigarh, we stopped at a roadside dabha where I passed on the most tempting meal I had ever laid eyes on. Golden roasted makki roti and saag. With a more than generous helping of soft melting butter heaped on top. I did not want an upset stomach ruining the drive. After dinner, with Vaibhav back at the wheel, we set off. And it would have been all the more enjoyable if only I hadn't been thoroughly scared for my life during the whole drive to Chandigarh. For behind the wheel was Vaibhav; mild mannered techie by day, feared long distance driver by night.
Desperately hoping to fall asleep to spare myself from checking if the seat belt was thoroughly fastened every ten minutes, I closed my eyes tight. But that did not work. Every so often, we would pass by a fully loaded lorry blaring its horn like there would be no tomorrow. And the dust kicked up by the lorries, which flowed into the car uninterrupted did not help matters. Vaibhav keeping his window open to prevent him from falling asleep more than succeeded. And the wind chilled me to the bone. Being too scared to unbuckle my seat belt to reach for the jacket in the back, I braved the chilly wind and the copious dust. Which ended with me catching a severe cold before we reached Chandigarh. As we crossed into Himachal Pradesh, the winding roads on the way to Dharamsala were a brilliant way to welcome a new dawn. As the car climbed higher, this little detour seemed all the more exiting. Vaibhav, Gaurav, Shubam and me were set for a little camping trip to Thrund, a mountain village on the foothills of the Himalayas.
After a night of merry making, we woke up the next morning at an early five and set off with our guide on the trail to Thrund where a tent and other facilities were conveniently arranged in advance. Gaurav, having been thoroughly spooked by my coughing, had been afraid that I might not last the night. He later told me that it sounded like a death rattle. Hiking up the mountain trail, in the thin air with an unstoppable running nose was not a pleasant experience. But the views on the way were spectacular. When we stopped half way up the trail, the panoramic view of Dharamsala, complete with the shiny new cricket stadium was better than any refreshment. At the top, with full views of peaks covered with freshly fallen snow, we sipped tea and and relaxed on the bright green grass. As we gazed at the sun set slowly behind the hills, a merry little fire was started and the food was being passed around. Having had our full, and passing the late evening by the camp fire, we retired to the tents. I hoped to catch some long needed sleep despite the clogged nose that refused to let me breathe.
We set off down the mountain early the next day. I planned to stay the day at Dharamsala to do nothing but drink hot water and sleep off the cold. The others headed back to Delhi having dropped me off at the bazaar in Dharamsala. I got a room at the first hotel I found, downed a jug to steaming hot water and promptly passed out. Late that evening, having inquired around for buses to Jammu, I had a small supper at a roadside eatery. The bus would leave the next morning at nine. I made sure that I would wake up early with plenty of time to catch the bus, downed another jug of steaming hot water and surrendered to the warmth of the thick quilt on that chilly winter night.