Her Story- Cruising Alaska

Her Story- Cruising Alaska

There seem to be more bars on the ship than I can count. I sit here at the one by the pools. The poolside with the hot- baths. One large, one small. I face the touchy-feely couple in the small one: skin wrinkled with the heat of the water, faces an excited red with the icy winds blowing, and bodies extended and relaxed. It’s easy to see they don’t care for much else except how the skin feels soaked in the bubbling warm water. Their own. Each others.

I order a whiskey. The barman looks surprised. “Its not the weather for a whiskey, also not the time. Cruises are about fun drinks and striped towels at the pools.” Smiling, I look up at him, the large collection of liquor of every kind and at fellow-cruisers, comfortably ensconced in chairs that demand relaxation.

So many levels, so many levels of entertainment on each of them. The 9th Deck is the highest and also the coldest, but it’s the one with a celebratory mood. The music plays songs from the 80’s and 90’s and there’s a spontaneous breaking into song and dance.

Smokers have claimed their corner of the deck already, outside of the gusts that will blow the flickering cigarettes out. Do smokers have a hidden code that unites? Does smoking a cigarette amount to smoking a peace pipe? Those cigarettes definitely have special powers; they instantly create homogeneous groups out of total strangers.

Cruisers with pizzas, ice creams and hotdogs walk in and out across a pile of blankets that sit on a counter looking sure, as if to say- Not today perhaps, but you’ll be reaching out for us soon. I’m cold already.

I stretch my legs out, sitting on the silver barstool with whale-tail seats. My thigh-high brown boots are almost new, bought especially for these seven days.

The zipper on the left one has caught a bit of denim in it, right above the infinity tattoo on my thigh. I try pry it loose, but its still there, pretty much the story of my life.

The barman smiles as he throws up a flaming bottle in the air, catching it in time to pour out a golden spirit. He jokes constantly, but as I will discover later, he pays absolute attention to remembering what each guest likes. The service crew is almost all either Indonesian, Balinese or Filipino. Gentle, dedicated and hard working.

Everyone on the way down smiles at each other. A carefully tuxedo’d couple in their fifties hold hands and smile at each other and me, facing the mirrored wall. I think to myself: Mountains of food, drink and deserts of every imaginable variety seem to have softened humanity.

I hurry to three levels below mine and walk rapidly to the aft side of the ship. I’m lost! This is a maze of too big, too beautiful, too much.

Someone gives me directions. I find myself walking across a bar and a piano room, filled with people playing Trivia. Surprise! It would be fun to stop and play.

I bump into the tuxedo’d couple again. The woman is clinging to him, body language almost screaming Stay away, you women of the world. This man is mine!

I think I’m lost again.

This time I read the signs carefully- Aft, Forward, Center. I pass the ballroom where we’ll go for the Captain’s Dinner. I’m going only because I want to wear the saree I’ve carried with me.

And then, suddenly, I see the right numbers- Evens on one side, Odds on the other. There it is, the suite I’ve been searching for.

I knock on the door. It has a guilty tuktuk sound. A click and it is open, one step in, it clicks shut.

We just stand there voiceless- kissing, touching, hugging, clinging, barely making it to the bed. My heart is a desperate wail. This is all we’ve got. Seven days, that’s it. One day almost over. All that we have is six days of anonymity and each other.

This is all we’ve got. Two weeks from today I will be home, wearing the bridal lehnga my fiance’s sister chose for me, marrying a stranger my parents chose for me, living a life my culture chose for me.

Months of planning, and however much we both try to pretend otherwise, we both know this is all we have.

I step over the white sheets, across the toweled creature the housekeeping has created.

The Do Not Disturb sign blinks a bright neon green.

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Surreal Ladakh 1- Pills, Palettes and Moonlit Nights

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“Take it easy” was the refrain we heard each time we talked of our Leh plans:  Ladakh is treacherous. Just sleep the first day/ Don’t walk around/ Take the High altitude pills/ Report to a doctor the minute you feel pukey or feel your head going heavy or if you can’t breathe.changla4
All of them possibilities that seemed highly likely- in just one day three families told us how Leh is a scary memory because of the above- and how close they were to dying of High Altitude Sickness and lack of oxygen when on a holiday in Ladakh.

2015-07-01 18.37.20Literally half hour into the flight we were above snow clad mountains. Unfortunately, the thick cloud cover only allowed for glimpses of the white below.

 

Conversation between the two male travelers in the seat behind was like this:
What kind of holiday is this yaar, eat pills so you can go back alive, alcohol isn’t allowed during acclimatization! I don’t care, I’m having rum.
1st man: Sure. You won’t care after you’re dead. People generally don’t.
Okay.
Then to us: “Have you had your dose of Diamox?”
I tell him there doesn’t seem to be a need to take it just yet, but if there is the slightest discomfort …
He: Don’t wait. Have it!
They look at us with an expression of  ‘Are you mad’ and go back to discussing Greece and how/ why the media is playing it down.

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2015-07-01 20.15.24.jpgOut of nothing I remember that a plane that had dashed into one of these peaks, and another into a part of the monastery right across, 28 or thirty years back in time. It seemed possible even today as we sweep in through narrow corridors in gusty winds.
I’ve heard that only ex- Indian Air Force pilots flying commercial airlines are able to land on the Leh strip.
“The outside temperature is 14*C”, announces the pilot.
It will be 2* C at midnight, informs the chatty man sitting behind us looking at a weather forecast on  his phone.2015-07-01 11.35.14.jpg

Brrr. 2015-07-01 11.22.19
The wind is blowing and the chill factor is in play. I look out as we hover above the tiny airport. What an extraordinary landscape.
Sci-fi movie set. Only more spooky.
And beautiful in a desperately minimalistic way.

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Even now in the summer months there’s very little green, except in and around Leh.
 In almost all  other parts it is barren and  rugged, multi-hued mountains deeply scarred with thousands of years of wind and snowy streams cutting through them.

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Why do people push to get into the airline buses- they aren’t those local2015-07-01 11.34.34 Indian town buses that may leave you out if you don’t do an elbow maneuver each time you have to board.
Women do it more.
Older women.
I think.
They also happily disregard queues. Perhaps it comes from a sense of entitlement that comes with age.
I think. 2015-07-01 11.35.48

The airline bus could not climb the first not- even- that- steep road.
Its Ladakhi driver tinkered on, pulled at various sticks, pushed the accelerator to crazy groans, yet nothing.
Ten minutes later we piled on to the next bus. I saw some folks exchange happy sly smiles when the pushy aunty was now stuck pretty much at the end of the line, and someone said,”Karma plays out right here.”
That was not the last time I would here the K word.

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2015-07-01 18.40.05The mud huts we opted to stay  in were just as we left them years ago.
Built out of ghee tins cut to size and plastered with local mud, they kept the heat in. 2015-07-02 06.43.00.jpg
The entrance still has a dragon with a slightly doped expression on his face; I’m guessing the painter passed down the ‘Painting the Dopey Dragon’  legacy with a great sense of responsibility.
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Lack of oxygen supply and high altitude are a heady combination. An hour into lunch and the start of the mandatory two days of acclimatization, something slightly weird does happen to the head- like a small rush.
Perhaps it is psychological, I tell myself.2015-07-02 06.55.00.jpg

Sleep comes easy that afternoon, perhaps the body’s natural defense 2015-07-01 11.32.04mechanism kicking in to ensure you take it easy.

The landscape changes every few minutes- shadows play games with the mountains, peaks adorn more white, and the blue palette flows into grays and ink.
We are surrounded by peaks. Its like living in a hollow carved out from mountains and undulating sand and white peaks, photo shopped every minute to change colors with changing shadows cast by fast moving clouds.
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DSC06020.JPGThe moonlight is good enough to read a book.
Bright, white, luminous, it turns the landscape into something so surreal that no pictures or words can describe it.
Everyday things like trees and roofs look eerie, as if it was day in another planet.

Even as I write, there’s something big  scurrying across the roof of my 20150705_201549mud hut. And another. And another.
It is unnerving, to say the least. Tucking my feet under the hot-water bottle, I take a deep breath and pull the quilt closer still.

The wind wont stop howling as it escapes from the passes in the mountains enclosing us.

This will be a long night.DSC06015.JPG