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14th Nov 6:30 PM : The cold cut into my bones as I rode through Karnataka in the evening. I knew I was behind schedule by 5 hours but hoped to reach Pune by midnight. Soon I had to slow down owing to the road conditions and the locals suggested I put up for the night in Belgaum. So I checked into a hotel some 4 kms into the city where over a cup of coffee I reflected on my journey so far.

It was the 8th day of my motorbike trip ( I called it my pilgrimage) and had had some great time with my classmates Saji, Santosh, Arpita & my ex colleagues and all through the ride there were moments which took my breath away. 40% of the journey still remained.

I had started on the 7th and travelled from Kolkata to Kanyakumari via Vizag, Chennai, Bangalore & Rameshwaram and was heading towards Pune to attend a 3 day spiritual workshop at the GMCKS Arhatic Yoga Ashram on a hill. Santosh had joined me in Bangalore and we made it to Rameshwaram and then Kanyakumari before seeing him off on 13th. Post the completion of the workshop my plan was to head for Mumbai and then cut through the India map horizontally and return via Raipur & Rourkela.

18th Nov, 3PM : I packed my stuff and after a hearty meal with the staff,  walked towards the parking lot.  30 mins later with a heavy heart I bid goodbye once we exchanged some last moment pleasantries. ‘I will be back’, I said to myself.

The road was narrow and went through some scantily populated villages and at times you would see some gypsy tents. All around were hills and at times the path also went through the woodland and the experience was exhilarating. They said that the narrow road leads to Lonavla and I couldn’t hold my excitement any longer. And then I met Umar and his mate! Umar was doing the test ride of the Kawasaki Ninja ZX-14R review for Autocar India ( http://www.autocarindia.com/auto-reviews/kawasaki-ninja-zx-14r-review-test-ride-364800,2.aspx ).Image

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12th Oct 2013, 1:40 PM :- Goldy Singh walked in the front as I drove my Jazz out of the India Border at Sonauli towards the Nepal border. Neetu was in the front and in the back seat was Fernando ( a Spanish guy we picked up on our way to Sonauli. He was looking for a lift and was standing on the side of the road waving a placard) &  Goldy’s assistant who was waving at the guards on both sides. I just cannot express in words the excitement of that moment. In the next couple of hours our permit would be in our hands along with a Nepalese number plate.

The drive to Nepal was not planned in advance. When my friend  Akash Mukhia updated me about the road condition on NH34, we dropped the idea of Pedong & Kalimpong and chose Satkosia & Daringbari in our route plan. On 10th, the day before our departure, we got news ( fortunately my friend  Jiten Mohapatra warned me )of an approaching cyclone in the coastal belt of Orissa and started looking for an alternative route. With the assistance of Mahendra Pratap Sharma  my colleague, I was able to establish a contact with Chunnu Bhai (Mahendra’s friend) in Gorakhpur who confirmed the road condition to be motorable. Without any booking anywhere on the route, 9 hours later Neetu & myself hit the highway looking forward to an exciting journey to an unknown land, unknown terrain & unknown people.

From Kolkata, Varanasi, Sonauli, Pokhara to Kathmandu and back via the Birganj Raxaul border, it was a journey to remember through the low hanging puffs of white clouds, through the rain amidst the greenery and the hills with their sensual curves offering a surface to experience the adrenaline rush at high speeds and a drive covering more than 2500 kms.

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04:30 AM, Oct 27 2013 – Break of dawn

“30 mins before we hit the road”, I muttered to myself as I stashed my binocular into the deep pocket of my backpack. I knew I would be late by 20 mins.

Raima is known for springing surprises and so I wasn’t surprised when the night before she told me about this ride she & Sukanya (her friend & a great rider) had in mind and my friend John wanted to tag me along. When I googled, I found out that Rolling Wheels ( a motorbike club in Kolkata) & XKMPH had been there some time back.

I had not heard about Gangani (a canyon in Bengal) and at this point I would shamelessly admit that I have yet to discover many of the interesting places in my State. Few hours later I would witness the breathtaking view of the canyon along the course of Silavati river.

So the four of us met at Dakshineshwar and Dibyendu joined us from the Kona Expressway connector. Sukanya was riding Apache RTR, John was on Duke, Raima on Avenger and Dibyendu & myself with our CBRs.

Via Kolaghat, Kharagpur, Salboni, Chandrakona and Garbeta the ride was picturesque as we passed through stretches of paddy fields on both sides dotted by rows of trees and at times segments of NH60 looking like a silken ribbon laid ahead for us. From the highway connected a small road and aound 1 km from there emerged a trail through the greenery and then abruptly the landscape changed! I could not believe my eyes when I saw below the horizon the long serpentile river, the canyon bordering its bank soaked in the wilderness.

With us and our motorbikes parked on the ledge I understood what it means when they say ‘Eyes are voyeur & nature is exibitionist’. And then I forgot all about my Olympus 8X40 DPSI.

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3rd Oct 2013: I must say that my friend John is a tough guy. 1200 kms in a day battling some technical glitches along the way is not a simple ride. The other day John had agreed to do the endurance test with me on a very short notice and we then had to quickly finalize on the route.

On 2nd Oct we started at 5AM in the morning and hit NH6. Then we got into NH60, NH5, rode through some heavy rain and finally landed in Rambha. After a quick stroll near the Chilka we had lunch at OTDC. Then made a U turn and on 3rd early morning  made quite a decent landing with sleep driving the pins into our eyes.

With the beautiful landscape around I badly missed my camera but it was a conscious decision not to stop & take pictures as it was a race against time. So John and myself had to settle for less and took some pictures with our cell phones.:-(

A hot shower freshened me up before I left for office at 10:15 AM still carrying the hangover of those 24 hrs which flew with us with every moment soaked in waking consciousness within the space – time fabric.

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A Mouthful of Sky

I saw the wing tremble as the slim yet powerful LOT jet started to taxi on the runway. There were some small aircrafts parked in the distance but they looked more like toys. As the flying machine gained momentum, I craned my neck to get the maximum view of the ground below us. In less than a minute we were airborne and the ground started to get farther and farther away from us.

The nose of the plane was still up and when I looked down I saw at the greenery below dotted by the quaint houses with brick red roofs and chimneys. It must have taken only five minutes to leave the lovely city of Krakow behind us. The sky was clear and we were rapidly gaining altitude. After some time the terra firma would look more like a collage made of tiles of various shapes and sizes and colours. I felt sad and drowned in thoughts.

It was Saturday and John had invited me to spend the day with him and I was looking forward to it. He was at the hotel ten minutes before ten in the morning and by the time we set out it was ten minutes past ten. I was late because I was searching for my sunglasses which for some reason I didn’t need at all.

Mister was accompanying John and was quite friendly on our very first meeting. I assumed that he was in a good mood because he was wagging his tail. As we walked towards the parking lot, he sniffed at anything and everything on the way. John told me that Mister doesn’t get to be in the city very often and so was very excited.

I am a fan of Honda when it comes to motorbikes and cars and John owns a Jazz. As we drove away from the city, John showed me some interesting places of interest. The labor concentration camp was one of them and when we drove past he narrated the history behind it.  It was intriguing to hear about the communist rule in Poland and the country’s struggle to change things. It pained me to hear about the brutalities this country had to face for so many years. He also told me how he met his soul mate Gosia, a Polish girl and then how life changed and they finally landed up in Poland. I could imagine the way John feels about Poland and more so because it had taken only a few days for me to fall in love with this place.

It took us a while to get out of the city before we reached the place where all of a sudden the traffic seems to pause and people take the road through the village. We turned right to take one such road to the heart of Bochnia. The road looked like a ribbon with plenty of greenery on both sides and beautiful houses. It sometimes went up and then leveled. John pointed towards the left where there is a forest. He said that when he goes cycling he takes the road through the forest and in the winter with snow around it seems more like a fairy tale. I was taking pictures and trying to grasp every bit of information John was providing.

For those who do not know John yet, let me tell you that he is a great guide and can translate between Polish and English fluently. By the way, he also expressed his desire to work as a guide part time in the salt mine at Bochnia but we’ll come to that later.

We drove past the gate of a house which John mentioned belongs to a very rich guy who minted money by making telephone cables. Finally we reached house number 557 and parked. Gosia was out and we were supposed to meet her and her parents at their place later for lunch. The house is very beautiful and got to know that both Gosia and John had spent a lot of time and effort in giving it shape from a very basic to the modern form. Gosia’s brother’s involvement must be mentioned too in this context. I spotted a Spanish guitar in the drawing room which told me that John has interest in music too. I also saw this place in the house where he has all the tools and tackles to work with his bicycles.  If I remember correctly there were three of them one belongs to Gosia and the others to John.

‘Do you use gas or electricity to heat?’ I asked when I noticed the fireplace. John took me to the back yard and showed me a huge pile of wood stashed away neatly. ‘I have enough wood for the winter’ he smiled.

Mister was in a very playful mood and I would take the ball and throw it and he would make a dash for it. This went on for sometime while John got busy preparing coffee. As I sipped coffee John showed me some pictures of the house which showed how it looked when they bought it.  We left Mister in the house as we headed towards the market where John bought a few things. We met some elderly ladies selling vegetable and other food items. They were very sweet and were excited to meet an Indian. We took pictures.

‘We are now cruising and would serve refreshments now’

My train of thoughts was interrupted by the cracking voice of the crew from the speaker above. I was hungry and the bread and wine was perfect for my appetite. I noticed the puff of clouds and they appeared like a load of cotton in the clear blue sky. So far no turbulence and we were 35000 ft above and cruising. I noticed that I was still glued to my seat and so unfastened the seat belt to be at ease. I remembered that every time I forgot to fasten the seat belt in the car, John would alert me.  Soon I found myself rewinding to resume from where I had left off.

We just made it to the salt mine in time. The guide would speak in Polish and so they gave me a gadget with a numeric keypad with play & stop buttons. This device has the capability to narrate in the user’s preferred language (I think there were two options- Polish and English). You could select the language by pressing the stop key and entering a number. In the mine wherever you came across a point of interest, you would notice a number indicated somewhere in the line of sight and pressing the same on the gadget would start the narration describing the story behind it. I would soon realize that John was a lot better than the gadget because he translated everything that the guide talked about and updated me in real time.

 

 

 

We walked through the entrance and then got inside an elevator of the old kind. It was more of a metal box than anything else and soon we were plunging deep into the earth to witness something that was built in the 14th century. The transporter rattled and creaked and we could feel the speed at which we were being dropped. Finally it stopped and we came out and sat on the bench as instructed by our guide. Our guides were an elderly gentleman and an elderly lady and there were two groups. There was a railway track originating from this point and it was hard to digest that we were 450m under the ground and the air was still so fresh.

We passed through a metal door and the guide was speaking all the instructions to the groups. He said that we would take a train to go further and that this train is even better than the trains at Krakow. People broke into laughter.

The train arrived and I had never seen something like that before. It was a caravan of wooden benches on a framework of metal with iron wheels running on iron track of maybe 70 cm gauge. We made ourselves comfortable with our legs on each side. It was fun because it made a lot of noise and we were in a big cave which would never end.

The train stopped after going a certain distance and we got down. Everyone followed the guide to all the points of interest and all the time John was translating for me. I came to know how the workers in the mine would carry out excavation with simple tools like pickaxes and spades in a place where danger lurked at every corner. I learnt that in those days a block of salt would cost more than gold. With a block measuring approximately 1 cubic meter in volume   you could buy an entire village. The mine had methane in certain pockets and the gas being lighter than air would hover like a cloud overhead. Prisoners who served life term sentence were the candidates to lead the way and look for these gas reserves and blow them out. Battery or dry cells were still not invented and so they would carry fire torches. There would be explosions and some would die. However if any such prisoner survived this feat for an year he would be set free and could choose to still work in the mine for a wage. It was considered that he had been forgiven by GOD and so we mortals must also do so.

It was very thrilling to be 450 m down there looking at things done 773 years back and learning the process of salt mining. We finally came to banquet hall and the play area. John had told me about the dormitory and the guide showed us the place where 270 persons could be accommodated. It was very exciting and I suggested that this could be the ideal venue to host the annual day event but that would mean convincing our CEO Sascha.

I enjoyed a glass of beer while John settled for coffee. He told me that besides being a tourist attraction the place has also health benefits. People suffering from respiratory problems would come and stay here for a certain period of time to get cured. Now the health chapter is run and promoted by this guy I talked about before. Remember the guy in Bochnia who minted money from telephone cables?

On our way back from the mine my friend showed me a unit which produces hot water for circulation in the town but only for blocks of houses and not for the stand alone ones. This was one good thing introduced in the communist era and this facility is available at a very cheap price. As far as the availability of this facility is concerned, this is only for the cold winter months and not on need basis.

Well I have talked a lot about John already and at this point it would be unfair not to bring up Gosia and her parents.  John had showed me Gosia’s picture back at his residence and when I met her in person I understood how special she is. She is calm, composed with a very kind look in her eyes. Gosia drives a FIAT Punto and John parked his car beside hers when we reached their locality. As we walked towards the house John mentioned that long time back when the family was under pressure to give up the land, it was Gosia’s great grandmother who put her foot down and remained firm and just wouldn’t give up. In the end, her resistance paid off and this is something that the family would always be proud of. Gosia went to art school when she was younger and at the moment she is doing a course in Accounts. Jolek, Gosia’s father was at the gate and he greeted us. ‘Salaam Walecum’ he said. ‘Walecum Salaam’ I replied. I’ll never forget the smile Jolek carried on his face all through.

The dining table was in the lawn and I didn’t waste any time in making myself comfortable. On my right was John and on my left Gosia. Jolek was sitting across me with Teresa to his right. Teresa looked like a wonderful companion to Jolek and one who has stood by him all through the thick and thin of life. I was the first Indian to visit the Polish family and this was enough to spark a conversation on culture and tradition of my country.  I told them about my marriage, about the chariot, the rituals, the caste system, different languages and lot of other things about my beautiful country.

Over a variety of cakes ( three kinds out of which I liked the one with coconut the most), blueberries, sandwich , vodka we talked about gods, goddesses, festivals in India and also a lot about Iraq especially Baghdad.  For Jolek, Iraq would always find a special place in his heart because in difficult times he had worked there and earned enough money to build the house. Jolek narrated his experiences in the foreign land and I came to know that the sun appears a lot bigger in Iraq and so does the horizon. He also showed me a picture of him dressed as an Arab. There was another one with Teresa, Gosia and Gosia’s brother where Gosia’s mother looked like a movie star. I picked up the topic on how Jolek met Teresa and it turned out to be another interesting story and we found out that it was Teresa who had proposed to Jolek. Teresa’s family had no objections about the guy because his family name sounded royal. John told me how funny some names could sound in the countryside like ‘Mr. Onion’, ‘Mr. Little Mushroom’ and so on and I laughed and laughed.

I must have lost count of time because when Jarek called up I remembered that he had told me about a concert in Krakow that evening. I was so engrossed in imbibing everything I got to know from people around me that I thought a context switch would arrest the flow. Besides it was already late and we still had a couple of items on our itinerary. I told Jarek that by the time I reached Krakow it would be late and it would be better to meet the following day.

We then went to see what was grown in Jolek’s garden. I found turnip, peas, onion, cabbage, tomatoes, coriander, beans planted. On the right was the grape vine and I was amazed when John told me that Jolek makes wine from them. Among the trees are walnut trees, cherry, plum, apple and maybe more I cannot recollect.  I also learnt that he makes hay for the rabbits. The rabbits were many in number and some of them were bigger than any I have ever seen. Jolek wanted to gift me something and for once he thought a rabbit could be a good idea. I also saw the small room where Jolek would make his cigarettes and it had some of his personal belongings like a camera and so on. I said that I liked the camera and he immediately wanted to gift it to me. He sure is a darling.

We visited his garage next. Well not sure if you would actually call it a garage. Maybe we can say it is a ‘Tech Shack’.  In there were welding machines, spanners, wrenches and all other kinds of tools and tackles. On the floor was a container with a variety of nuts, bolts, washers, bushes etc. John remarked that whenever he would need something, he would hunt through this place and always find what he wanted.

‘Would you like to say ‘Hi’ to my neighbor?’ Jolek asked me.

Across the wire fence I extended my hand and shook hands with them. They offered me a drink and we spoke to each other for a while, me speaking in English and the others in Polish. Well I guess by now you would know for sure and I need not tell you who did all the translation.

We were getting late and the castle visit was the last item on the itinerary. As I was leaving Jolek gifted me two cigarettes which he had made by himself. I gave him two cigarettes in return from my pack of Indian Gold Flake Lights. He saw us off at the gate with that same smile and heard him say something in polish. John told me that he said ‘May your God protect you’. I was touched. There I was in another country some 7000 kms from my land and yet it felt that they are my own and I could feel them very close to my heart.  As I bid them farewell, I said to myself ‘We’ll again meet in time and share our joys and sorrows in that very garden amidst the beautiful surroundings with wine and food.

The castle is located in a place which is serene with lot of greenery around. John parked his car and we got down and my eyes caught a black Harley Davidson. I circled around it and took pictures.

Gosia pushed open the small gate on the right and went in and we followed. The castle looks exactly like the ones you would find in story books. John told me that the stable has been converted into a hotel & café. We went in and I ordered a beer for me and coffee for Gosia. Not sure really, was it for John? I’ll have to ask him. Anyway it doesn’t matter who had coffee and who didn’t but what you need to know is that all through the day John could not have any alcohol because he was driving and the rules of the land do not permit. So that was kind of sad. Poor John!

We sat outside in the sitting area beside the castle and I enjoyed the beer as we discussed about life in general. I must say it was quite interesting to get John’s & Gosia’s views about our expectations from life and we were very much in sync with each other. It was one of those rare occasions where I was just myself and was thinking free. It felt like I had set myself absolutely free and surrendered to all the elements around me. It was magical.

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