Extraordinary in the ordinary

Embracing differences with elan in Sikkim

Sometimes, one just has to respect local knowledge and trust local styles of working.
Published at The Hindu.

I recently visited the Fambong Lho Wildlife Sanctuary in western Sikkim, 30 km from Gangtok, a 52-sq.km natural haven. But my experience was not limited to nature.

Entry to the sanctuary required authorisation from the Forest Department. So I took a local taxi for the Pangthang Forest Block and reached the office of the Eco-development Committee, which issues the permit. There was no one there. A few files and loose sheets lay at the reception desk. I stepped outside hoping to catch a human figure amid the cherry blossom trees and the Himalayan ranges all around. After a couple of minutes, I heard water splash on the floor. Someone was bathing in the washroom of the office!

“Hello? Hello?”

No response.

I knocked at the washroom door.

“I am taking a bath!”

I felt embarrassed to intrude into someone’s private space. All the same, I couldn’t wait too long. I needed to enter the sanctuary fast as the sun set early. So I relented.

“Okay. But I need the government-issued permit.”

“Call Kalpana. She’ll give you.”

I was confused. How was I supposed to know Kalpana?

“Who is Kalpana? I’m a tourist.”

Pat came the reply in an “obviously-I-know-that” tone.

“Yes yes! I know you’re a tourist! You’re unable to call Kalpana or what?”

Now l felt my common sense was under challenge! Of course, I could call Kalpana. What was so difficult in calling Kalpana, right? So I stepped outside the office, looked at the clouds travelling through the pines, and shouted at the top of my voice, “Kalpana…Kalpana…”

My taxi driver jumped out of his seat looking at me as if I was a nincompoop. He probably thought the high-altitude effect had kicked in.

In the next few seconds, from nowhere, a face popped up and a voice! A woman wearing the traditional Sikkimese gown called Kho came out of a passage between the mountains.

“Coming…”

She swiftly climbed up, sat at the desk, and asked for my identity card. In the quintessential pale yellow pages of a government diary, she began filling my details. I asked if there was a guide at the sanctuary to take me for a trek.

Her eyes lit up.

“I am a forest guide too. I will take you. Do you want to climb to the highest point 10 km uphill and downhill, or only up to the mid-point?”

It was too good to be true. Trekking with a woman who lives in the mountains…who could be a better forest guide than her?

“The full trek please.”

“Okay. Let me get ready. I will meet you down the road.”

Trekking shoes on, hair tied and a sleek backpack and pockets loaded with Churpi (cottage cheese cubes made of yak milk) in a jiffy, Kalpana had transformed into a trekker! She firmly instructed me on the pace I had to keep up and the weight I could carry. And off we were.

As they say, the rest is history. The next few hours marked a pristine trekking experience amid the dense cover of oak, bamboo, orchids, and ferns.

In hindsight, I realise that when I entered the office, I didn’t meet someone seated in a swanky setting available to engage with me exactly as I pleased. Instead, I heard a woman taking a bath (whose face I never got to see!), expecting me to be smart and rather hands-on! At any moment, I could’ve simply walked out, sat in my taxi grumpy, missed the experience of trekking in an impeccably preserved forest reserve, and spent the next few hours expressing disappointment with the ‘state of affairs.’

Sometimes, you just have to respect local knowledge and trust local styles of working. The culture and systems of places we visit will always be different from how things are organised in cities or the methods we are habituated to. But that doesn’t make the former any less dependable or inefficient. All it takes to embrace that difference is a handful of flexibility and a pinch of spontaneity.

This article was published at The Hindu.

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