I woke up at 4:30 AM yesterday. Partly because my body continues to be unaware of its exact whereabouts, whether it's the US, India or the mid-Atlantic ridge. Also, in part because I was planning on hiking up Mt Whatsitsface that morning.
I was in Girivan, a private hill station near Pune with my family where my sister has built a bungalow at the base of Mt. Whatsitsface, a mountain that rises up above the rest of the village to a height of, let's say, a thousand feet, give or take five hundred. Historically, it was named Mt. Whatsitsface in the 2010s after numerous inquiries with regard to its name yielded no answers.
So there I was, standing outside the house at 6:00 in the morning, waiting for the caretaker Prabhakar, who was also going to be my guide, to show up. Apparently I needed a guide because otherwise I would fall off the mountain and die. It was still dark and I waited patiently, listening to morning sounds. And smelling morning smells. I decided to perform a few push-ups to kill time. I managed to do 30, give or take 25. Then it was back to waiting. Just then, I heard somebody running hard. Really hard. I guessed it was Prabhakar, really really eager to take me up the mountain of his ancestors.
It turned out to be a little brown dog, who appeared to be running for his life. After making a sharp right and squatting underneath the gate, he entered our garden and stood there with terror in his eyes. I could empathize because once, I used to be little and brown. And on occasion, I've had to run for my life. Thinking quickly, I gestured towards the back of the garden where I knew was a secret exit into the woods. Without pausing to bark his thanks at me, the dog ran out back.
After about 10 seconds, I heard some more running and three large white dogs appeared with the demeanor of people looking for a little brown dog. I stood there with a look on my face that said I hadn't seen a little brown dog and even if I had, you are too big to fit underneath the gate anyways, so eat me. They left, still looking.
I continued to wait. Finally, I saw Prabhakar in the distance, carrying what appeared to be an immensely long bamboo pole. It appeared that the plan was to pole-vault me onto the top of the mountain. As he opened the gate, I said to him, "Good morning Prabhakar, not to rain on your parade here, but I forgot to bring my blow-absorbent clothing and helmet."
"What?", he said.
"You know", I said and pointed at the bamboo pole.
"That's for the Gudi", said Prabhakar. "It's Gudi Padva today".
"Ah, yes", I said, realizing that today was indeed the Maharashtrian new year.
"Let me just get the Gudi up and then we'll leave", said Prabhakar.
"Okay", I said, hoping he wouldn't ask for help, thereby exposing the fraudulence of my Hindu affiliations.
Luckily, he was an expert at Gudi installation and did not require any assistance. After putting up the Gudi (which kind of resembles a broom all dressed up to be married to a mop from a wealthy family) and banging out milk from a coconut, he offered me a piece of its flesh as prasad which I gratefully accepted since I hadn't had any dinner the previous night. We then set off on our expedition.
The road up the mountain passed by Prabhakar's house, where he picked up his cellphone, no doubt to be able to phone in an emergency response team after I were to disappear off the side of the mountain. The road then turned into a footpath, began its ascent up the mountainside and got much steeper. Prabhakar, who is a wiry little guy, was making good time. Actually, much better time than I was because I was basically standing still, having propped myself against a tree and wiping my forehead.
"Hoy, Prabhakar", I yelled. "Can we go a bit slower?"
"Okay", he yelled back. I couldn't even see him.
"You know, it's just that I'm doing this for the first time in my life", I lied, hoping God wouldn't exact vengeance upon my mendacity by deleting all my hiking blog posts.
As I caught up with him, I asked him the question that had been constantly preying upon my mind.
"By the way Prabhakar, what is the name of this mountain that we are climbing?", I said.
"The mountain itself has no name, but this gap that we are climbing up to is called 'Waghjaichi Khinda'", he replied.
Waghjai can be loosely translated into Marathi as "Tiger goes".
"Why Waghjai?", I asked him, hoping to hear it's because tigers never went there.
"It's called that after the temple of Goddess Waghjai on top of the mountain", replied Prabhakar.
"Ah", I said. So that was that.
The path then grew even steeper, with leaves and small stones appearing on it, causing me to slip quite a bit. In addition, I was carrying a water bottle that was grossly impeding my efforts to grab on to the ground as I fell.
"Very dangerous section, this is", I said to Prabhakar, who, it appeared, was texting on his cellphone as he climbed.
"Here, give me that water bottle", he said, astutely realizing the issue.
I gratefully handed it over to him.
"Thanks", I said. "It's just that my shoes, you know, they aren't really meant for hiking", I said, pointing to my Timberland hiking boots. "They don't grip the ground as well as your....err....leather dress shoes".
After continuing to climb some more, we finally reached the flat top of Waghjai gap. There was a rather splendid view of the Mulshi valley with tiny hamlets clustered near the bottom of the mountain and Mulshi lake and dam farther along to the right. I could also see Sinhagad fort dimly outlined against the sky on the left. And on the other side, the twin forts of Lohagad-Visapur.
As I was wandering around, I saw a path going up the side of the mountain. I squinted at it because it was really hard to make out in the distance. What was worse was that I was standing five feet away from it.
"Is that the way up?", I asked Prabhakar.
"Yes", he replied.
"Okay then, I think we've climbed enough for today", I said. "Splendid view here, really splendid", I added and made to turn back.
"What's the matter? Don't you wish to visit the temple of the Goddess and offer your prayers?", said Prabhakar, visibly surprised.
"Well, it's just that I have problems with that path", I said, pointing at the thin, barely visible line on the mountainside. "It looks kind of slippery and there's very little to hang on to. Also, it's a direct fall to the bottom of the valley. And, I have height sickness", I added, just to round everything up nicely.
Prabhakar seemed unconvinced. "You know, a lot of 60 year olds have hiked that path".
"Well, I am almost 60", I replied. I am indeed closer to 60 than I am to 0.
"60 year old women", he added.
"Oh", I said. There really was nothing I could say to that.
"But I guess we can turn back if you want", said Prabhakar.
"I would like that", I said.
So, we turned back.
The hike back down was much more difficult than the hike up. I asked Prabhakar to let me go first. "Just so if I fall, I don't take you with me and you can save your own life", I explained. He seemed to appreciate my concern for his safety.
When we reached the section with leaves and stones, Prabhakar offered me the use of his stick. I declined.
"When I fall, I usually like to grab on to air and I won't be able to do that if I'm holding a stick", I explained.
As we were climbing down, I asked Prabhakar, "Has anybody ever fallen off this path"? It seemed unlikely that no one had because it wasn't a very easy hiking trail.
"No", he replied. "Not to my knowledge. In fact, even 60 year old women have made this hike with relative comfort", he added.
"Yes, you told me about the 60 year old women", I said to him, "but thanks for reminding me".
After fifteen more minutes of easier descending, we were back in the village. After paying him for his services, I told him that I'd be back and this time, we would go right up to the top and the temple of the Goddess. What I didn't tell him was that I'd also be bringing a 60 year old woman with me.
You know, because I'm really skeptical about that whole 60 year old woman business.