We had to part ways from the next fork on the road just after a small dhaba. It had been some great couple of days with Shilpa and Tarun, my fellow Kaza explorers, and a beautiful memory. They picked up this tall guy with messy hair from Mudh and I managed to stick with them until now. Their next plan was to explore Losar while I had to return to Mudh to pick up my trekking gear as I had to cross-out Pin Parvati trek from my to-do list. So, after I was dropped off at the dhaba, said my goodbyes and made promises to travel together in the future, I sat on a slightly crooked chair under the blue tin sheet for a ceiling of the dhaba, closed my eyes and took a deep breath. It was 3:00 p.m then and I had to catch a bus that was destined for Mudh at 4:15 in the evening. I thought I had it all planned and sorted, but hey, fate is funny.
I spent some good 30 minutes at the dhaba, having 2 cups of chai and jotting down some blue memories of the trip until now in my diary. I checked the watch at 3:30, a cool breeze was blowing and I was high on the idea of conquering Pin-Parvati. I paid Rs. 30 for my warm tea and headed towards the ATM to withdraw some cash as I was left with just Rs. 10 in my wallet. I reached the ATM and that is when chaos took over all the calm that I had inside me. Apparently, the ATM was ‘out of order because of some technical difficulties’ and that was going to put me in some really difficult situations. Now, just picture this, a man stranded in an unknown land where nobody knows his name with just Rs. 10 in his pockets and plans to trek the Pin Parvati Pass. All my composure was shoved down the drain when I heard that there was just one ATM in Kaza and I just sat on the ground with seconds ticking away. The only question on my mind was, what am I going to do without money? Barter is a long-dead practice and what did I have that I could barter anyway? (my watch was out of the question).
So, I just decided to leave it on fate and boarded the bus just on time. The bus was overcrowded which meant that I had to stand throughout the journey but it was the least of my concern right now. It kept coming back to me, the fact that I had no money to even pay for the bus ticket and I knew that I was doomed. I saw the bus conductor collecting money for the tickets and started wondering how I would prevent myself from being thrown out of the bus. When he got to me and asked for the ticket, all I managed to say was, ‘ I don’t have money.’ When he suspiciously eyed me, I added, ‘ the ATM was not working and I am out of cash.’ Maybe, he was well accustomed to the disability of the ATM and carried on his job without saying a word. After the entire bus came to know about my financial condition, I was pretty embarrassed to look at anybody in the eye and just gazed out of the window watching the barren brown landscape. After ignoring for some good 15 minutes, I finally looked at the man who was constantly staring at me and within a second realized that it was the owner of the guest house I was staying at in Mudh. He warmly said, ‘Julley’ (which means namastey is Ladakhi language) to which I promptly replied ‘Julley, what are you doing here?’ He very quickly dodged my question and said, ‘let me pay for you, you can pay me later.’ Surprised by his gesture I shamelessly agreed and promised to return him the money later. He took out his wallet, paid for me and left me in awe of his generosity.
Now, here is the funny part. Everybody on the bus started looking at me with pitiful eyes and a lady sitting in front offered me half of her seat. I felt I was being bestowed with kindness on that fine day and waves of emotions were hitting me out of the nowhere. I rejected her offer very politely at first but she kept on insisting and that is when I had to melt. It was pretty hard for me to get to the front of the bus as it was crowded with smiling faces but I somehow managed (thanks to my long legs). With half of my butt on the seat and the other half in the air, I struck a conversation asking her, her name. ‘Dholkar’ she replied merrily with sparkling eyes. Halfway through a random conversation with her, the bus driver interrupted us asking if I had a place to stay tonight. That is when I realized that even the driver knew that my pockets were empty and I felt naked. I declined, coyly and a man sitting next to Dholkar jumped and said, ‘you are more than welcome to stay at my place. Dholkar clapped her hands in excitement and that is when I discovered that the man was her father, Sonam. Now wait a minute, why would anybody ask a stranger to stay at their place especially somebody who looked like a vagabond. Had I been in the city I would have been skeptical but if travelling has taught me one thing, it is that the mountain folk are the purest breed in the human species. So I trust my instant, anyway I was desperate for a shelter and said yes.
Over the next few minutes we reached Mudh and while I was getting off the bus, everybody collectively wished me luck which made me blush for the next half hour. Sonam and Dholkar accompanied me to the guest house from where I picked up my belongings, had a cup of tea and left for Sonam’s house. I was stunned by their lifestyle. Or should I say jealous? A small family residing in a small wooden house on a mountain suburb with pictures of them lining the living room walls. With the second I entered the house, they made me feel at home by offering me chai and opting to hear some of my travel stories an I felt grateful for it. I was giving the room on the terrace to spend my night at which I imagined to be a penthouse with an eerie view of the mountains bathed with stars. Amongst all this chaos, that was the most peaceful sleep I had got in a while.
The next morning, I was woken up by a beautiful melody of chirping birds near my window and the sun still seemed to hide behind the high mountains. The sky was crystal clear and so was my wallet. But my heart? Full to the brim.
I went downstairs, had a chai that Dholkar prepared for me and took my leave after repeatedly thanking Sonam’s family for bestowing a stranger with kindness. I went straight to the guest house where I had stayed before and saw a couple having breakfast on the terrace. I asked them if they were travelling to Kaza that fine morning and by good grace, they were.
Hitchhiked with them to Kaza and FINALLY withdrew some cash from the damned ATM machine.