Mankind has always been inquisitive. We try to understand the little whys and wherefores that permeate our world by visiting new places, trying new things, and enjoying ourselves, actions which can only be described by the word travel. However, traveling is not always about living in the comfort of a five star hotel, or onboard a luxury sea liner, a fact I learned only too well at 11,657 feet amid the misty peaks and gushing waterfalls of the tallest mountain range in the world, the mighty Himalayas.
My family is of Indian descent, and while I take pride in my heritage, I prefer golden beaches to dusty streets. So, in the fall of 2010, when my father told me we were visiting India that summer, I was certainly not in a state of elation. However, I knew travel is costly, and disputing the decision to travel on that oh-so-troublesome trip would be absolutely useless if we had already bought the tickets. So, on the thirty-first of July, I departed to travel to the land of spices with some reluctance.
I soon discovered that our trip included, but was not limited to our usual haunts in the states of Gujarat, Maharashtra, and Punjab. After visiting my mother’s sister in the union territory of Chandigarh, I found that they would be accompanying us onwards. “Onwards where?” was the question I posed. My father smiled, seemed to gather himself, and announced proudly, “We are going to the Hindu temple at Kedarnath.”
I had absolutely no idea what he was talking about, so understandably I was not happy traversing the old British stone roads built nearly a century ago in a minivan in a region where no one had even heard of emergency services. Passing landslide after landslide did not improve my mood, nor did the constant sheet of water falling from the heavens the locals called rain. And when we finally came to the last 14 km between Gaurikund and Kedarnath, I found I had the choice to either walk the rest of the way, or to ride atop mule, ironically named Raja or King, because it was neither regal nor male. In my usual fit of laziness, I chose the beast of burden.
Despite my negative disposition, I could not help but be amazed by the countless barefoot devotees chanting praises to Lord Shiva, the destroyer, for whom the temple had been built more than a thousand years ago. Slowly I came to appreciate the mist that curled across the peaks, which still had snow despite it being the middle of August, the river more than a 1000 feet beneath me, the small vendors on the way selling pakoras to hungry pilgrims. When we finally reached the town itself, we fed our hungry mules and our hungry selves, and quickly fell asleep in the rooms of something that resembled a hostel with five star treatments, named Hotel Saurabh.
The next morning, I saw hundreds and hundreds already at the doors of the small stone structure that is Kedarnath Temple. They stood chanting, barefoot in the wet dew of morning, in worn shawls, in a place that is so high, if it was any higher, there would not be enough oxygen in your blood to maintain tissue function. And they were smiling.
Two weeks later, I was back in California, with its beaches and malls. When my homeroom teacher asked me whether I went on a vacation over the summer, I smiled, because Kedarnath was not a vacation. It was a once-in-a-lifetime quest to find myself. And I’d like to think it succeeded.
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