It was mid March that we stopped going out, deciding that the rising Cornavirus rates were too worrisome.
Yesterday, a little over 6 months later, we loaded up the car and drove out of the gate at 4:59am – phew, a whole minute ahead of schedule.
13 weary, dusty hours later, we arrived in the Tirthan Valley in Himachal Pradesh.
We have been coming to Tirthan for well over a decade now, usually coming twice a year and sometimes 3 times a year, but never has it felt as charged and as significant a visit as this time.
Tourism has only just restarted a few days ago in Himachal Pradesh after lockdown, and we were unsure of what the local reaction would be. Would years of welcoming smiles and great kindness get eclipsed by Coronavirus fears and hostility to outsiders?
Fears which are entirely justified, I hasten to add.
I can fully understand how nervous the villagers must feel, with outsiders beginning to arrive, and it was with a sense of distinct apprehension that I set out this morning for my first, tentative, wonderful walk to freedom.
Don’t get me wrong.
I have enjoyed my daily walks and runs in my Delhi park these past months, and I am grateful for such a green space amidst the noise and chaos of big city living. Truly I am.
But this morning’s slow 10km along the Tirthan river..ah now that was something completely different.
A deep blue sky. Hardly any traffic. The mountains towering overhead. The clean river below, where Himmat is hoping to catch epic amounts of trout. And, most importantly of all, no visible unfriendliness from the locals.
I was worried, I have to admit.
But everyone greeted me as politely as usual, and the few people with whom I chatted seemed as friendly as usual.
I chatted about persimmons with a man sitting outside a shop.
As one does.
I talked with a man who told me that the over-enthusiastic shaggy dog trying to chew my shoelaces wouldn’t bite.
The man putting up fencing along the road; the lady with 2 wide-eyed toddlers; the men taking a break from building a “jhoola”, a chair-like lift across the river…everyone seemed as friendly as before.
And so I walked slowly, puffing a little at the altitude, which is only 1300m, but after the plains, it made me breathe a little heavier than normal.
I stopped to offer a prayer of thanks at the pretty shrine where I alway stop.
I gazed at ‘my’ mountain, which I hope I’ll climb again next week, when I’m fully acclimatised.
This valley is one of my most favourite places ever, and our friends Christopher and Shefali with whom we stay – well, their lovely home is my home from home.
They have welcomed us, year after year, and made us feel like family.
One momentous year, when I came back from a high altitude climbing expedition all swollen and puffy faced, and weeping about a friend who’d died from cancer, they fed me, and literally clothed me – The Husband had forgotten to bring me any clean clothes, after I’d been climbing for 3 weeks…
This pretty stretch of river has memories galore.
I’ve walked along the road bordering the river hundreds of times – training for climbs, recovering from climbs, training for marathons, and many, many times, just ambling along for the fun of it.
Day One has been good.
Let’s see what’s in store tomorrow.
This trip, I am not planning on going off the beaten track, nor venturing into villages – there is no point in upsetting wary locals.
After all, I am the outsider in their home.
Even if this lovely valley feels like my home from home.