As privileged as it sounds, the pandemic ‘trapped’ me in the mountains; I was home, like everybody else, only with fresher air. I took it in my stride for a decently long time until the travel itch resurfaced, which I desperately tried to drown in routine.
While everyone I knew was experimenting with new recipes and I felt hopeful I’d turn over a new leaf, I didn’t go through a cooking phase; my relationship with the kitchen only worsened. I’m ashamed to say I didn’t pick up any new hobbies either. I tried shuffle dance once, if that counts. In the privacy of my room where I could make a fool of myself, my legs turned to jelly as I lay defeated on the floor and accepted the fact that my body’s high-speed coordination was below average. I moved on. That is, I went back to my comfort zone of books and cinema.
The announcement of relaxation in the restrictions released the breath I had been holding inside me for the longest time, and I scrambled for whatever bits and pieces I could lay my hands, nay, my feet on. Starting from walks in my hometown Nainital and marvelling at what quiet, clean, and beautiful strolls this commercial cesspool had to offer minus humanity, to retracing hikes I had done as a child (including one I had never done despite growing up there), my first taste of ‘pandemic travel’ was exploring this tourist town as a local. Like for a lot of us who travelled for workations and picked one spot to be in and explore, slow travel took on a whole new meaning. I reluctantly switched my travel motto from the grass is green on the other side to the grass is green where you water it, and started to explore my backyard, Kumaon, like never before.
From little villages which were nothing but signboards to me as I whizzed past them on my way to farther, better places, to detours leading to nondescript spots, I took the road less travelled. I found birdlife, solitude, and a hidden billabong upstream from Chaanfi village where my mother recalled eating the sweetest potatoes on a school picnic. I discovered a waterfall and the joy of reunion near Bhalugarh where I went with my father to meet his neighbours from over 40 years ago when he was posted there as a young government forest official. I ate delicious millet halwa at a homestay in Parvada, which I had bypassed a million times on my way to Mukteshwar.
I skipped the wildlife safaris of Corbett national park, shut down for more than a year, and peered at Jupiter’s moons wedged above its jungles instead, through a privately installed telescope. I plucked citrus maltas from trees in the villages of their birthplace and tasted them as if for the first time, now that they weren’t being transported to grocery stores. I made friends with a ‘workationing’ journalist from Bihar and a couple from South India, without having to travel far. Heck, I even indulged in a staycation for the first time, unwinding at an iconic hotel in Nainital where I had previously only attended wedding cocktails.
For over a year, I waited to get permits for a high-altitude trek. When I finally accepted that the pandemic was nowhere near its end, I left with my guide on an uncharted route that didn’t require official permits. For the first time in the history of my outdoor stints, I didn’t come across a human for days. The only footprints in the snow were those of pheasants and predators. A snowstorm, many shooting stars, and a stunning sunset over a glacial lake later, I returned home while technically never having left. Humbled by sights that I would have never ‘deigned’ to explore in normal times, I am no longer disturbed by Instagram posts of people holidaying in the Maldives. Winters have hit the mountains in full force and I would love some sunshine as the year ends, but I cannot any longer say that it’s because I haven’t travelled in a long time.
Born and brought up in the Himalayas, the author writes on culture, ecology, sustainability, and all things mountain.