Castles in the Clouds
Yesterday I went on a trek to a fort called Lohagad, outside of the hill station of Lonavala. Lonavala is about two hours by train from Mumbai, and is sort of like the equivalent of going to Banff for the weekend, except with less developed tourist infrastructure. My first day in Lonavala I got off the train and started walking, and ended up by some nice waterfalls and a lake. Women in brightly coloured kurtas were climbing up the steep and slippery rock face in their flimsy ballet flats. Groups of boys from Mumbai and Pune were sitting in the waterfall, the cold water soaking through their clothing. Children from the village were selling clear plastic bags to keep your phone dry. Everybody was taking selfies.
I walked down a quiet paved road through the jungle to the next village over, Khandala. Sprawling resorts and bungalows belonging to Mumbai’s elite lined both sides of the road. I continued up a hill to a park aptly called Monkey Point, because besides groups of Indian families eating freshly roasted corn on the cob were hordes of aggressive monkeys, perched on a ledge trying to steal the corn away from them. The point was overlooking a steep drop into what I imagine was a lush green valley, but due to the monsoon weather, all you could see was a thick wall of fog. The monkey-lined railing holding the tourists back from the edge of the cliff ran for several hundred metres along the edge of a green park, and all around was solid white.
The next morning I started my trek to Lohagad. From Lonavala, you take a train one stop further to a town called Malavali. From Malavali, it’s about two and a half hours up a steep tar road to the village of Lohagad. It was much steeper than I was expecting. The side of the road was lined with cars who had tried to go up the pot-holed pavement but couldn’t make it. Their owners had shoved stones behind the tires to keep them in place until they returned. A rickshaw had offered to drive me to the village for 800 rupees, but after seeing the condition of the road I was very glad I wasn’t experiencing it in the back of a tiny tin rickshaw.
It was pouring rain. I was wearing my raincoat over my backpack, and tried to block the water with my umbrella. I stopped for a few minutes under a road-side shelter made of tied together sticks and old plastic bags, before continuing up the road. I passed several waterfalls, rushing with rainwater coming down from the monsoon. In most places, these waterfalls would have served as attractions in their own right, but here they only served as pretty backdrops for a chai stall.
Past the village began the steep stone steps up to the fort. They were slippery in the rain. The base of the trail was lined on both sides by local women selling wada pav, omelettes, chai, and maggi. I climbed up and up, the landing at the top of each set of stairs even more breath-taking than the last. There was a large fortified gate, which led into a walled area with fortifications. Everything was bright green and dark black, surrounded by a backdrop of pure white. It was like we were in the middle of a cloud. Halfway up a waterfall had formed running down the stairwell, and I continued to climb up through it for a few minutes. Many people had taken off their shoes and were crawling over the stones barefoot.
Finally I reached the top of the fort, a massive expanse of green and stone. The wind whipped from all sides, and I gave up on my umbrella. The fog at the top was so thick, at some points you could hardly see three metres in front of you. It felt very disorienting, and I couldn’t see anyone or anything around me. It was like I was totally alone, literally on top of the world. I spent over an hour walking through the lush greenery, alone amidst the rocks and water and wind.
I hiked down far quicker than I hiked up. The rain was pelting down now. I folded up my umbrella, took off my glasses, and ran down the hill as fast as I could. Every few minutes I would try and ring the water out of my clothes, but it didn’t help. I gave up and just let myself get soaked by the monsoon.
I didn’t have a reserved train ticket, so I bought a general ticket (75 rupees, about $1.50 for a three-hour trip), and asked around until I found the waiting area for the special unreserved seating area for ladies. Five other women were waiting on the platform, and I stood with them. They shared my umbrella, and I played with one of their babies. The fact that there were only five women waiting gave me hope that I might get a seat on the way back. But as the train pulled up, 45 minutes late, we all rushed into the car, which turned out to only be two small berths with a smelly bathroom attached. It was full of women. Twenty-five women sat on the four benches, along with six more on the four single seats. Seven more were lying down in the overhead luggage racks. A well-dressed teenager stood near the door, not wanting to wrinkle her festive clothing. While the five women struggled to find a place to stand amidst the chaos, I sat on the floor, next to the open door (but far enough away to avoid falling out of the moving train), and watched the light fading from the tree-topped hills as the night whirled past outside the train.
I stepped off the train at Dadar Station, still soaking wet. I felt out of place with my tangled hair and dirty backpack, although I suppose my being a foreigner probably stuck out more than my hiking attire. It felt surreal to have hiked down from a mountaintop in the clouds, and to keep going until I ended up back in my residential neighborhood. As I weaved through the platforms, trying to transfer to the train that would take me home, I was surrounded by people coming from so many different places, so many different hometowns, social classes, backgrounds, stories, occupations, and destinations, all transferring through the train station together. I was coming from being alone on a rocky plateau in the sky, and heading home for Shabbat, but here in the midst of the mid-evening train station chaos, we were all just strangers, trying to catch our trains.
This morning I’m sitting in a coffee shop in the suburb of Bandra, drinking a cappuccino and finishing up my end of year reports. Two young Indian couples are sitting at a table near me. They look like a group of friends, out for brunch on a Friday morning. They share a basket of garlic bread and ask the waiter to bring some ketchup. One of the girls wants an omelette but her boyfriend (husband?) says they don’t have omelettes today. After about 10 minutes, two small children walk in accompanied by two well-dressed nannies. The kids play around by the counter, while the nannies awkwardly stand next to the table, not sitting, just watching over the scene. After some time, the nannies take the kids back outside.
As I’m finishing up my first year in Mumbai, and about to head back to Canada for a month, I’m thinking back about everything I’ve learnt this year, everything I’ve experienced and everything I’ve accomplished. I’ve travelled to so many places and met so many people. Through my work I’ve had so many conversations and learnt so many things. Thinking about these nannies, standing and watching over somebody else’s brunch, or about the strangers in the train station, or about the village woman perched in her shack selling omelettes on the side of the road, I’m reminded and humbled about the vastness of this crazy country, and about all of this individual stories which it’s made of, and I’m so grateful that I get to be a part of it for one more year.