Spiti, Acute Mountain Sickness and a Donation box!

                                                   Do you recollect the first thing your eyes meet when u first enter a mall, a hospital, billing counter of any departmental store or any religious place of worship? There is a common permanent member: a transparent donation box! A transparent donation box to show off all high denomination notes! The religious places of worship do not believe in show off hence; they have a metal donation box. Many times, this donation box is accompanied by a heart touching description or picture of a recent unfortunate event. Given the grandeur of the places where these donation boxes are found; I wonder if those people really need the donation money to help the cause.

                                               With this urban notion; my family and I had planned a trip to Spiti valley in 2018. Now Spiti valley is in Himachal Pradesh, India; and is a high altitude, cold mountain desert with very low levels of oxygen. Armed with the newly found knowledge from Google; we all set out; not bothering to understand what actually “high altitude, cold mountain desert with very low levels of oxygen” can do to us. I must mention our travel agent from Spiti Holiday Adventure informed us all about the challenges and how to be prepared for them, what to pack, precautions for AMS (Acute mountain sickness) etc.; however; I feel an urban person embarking on a holiday throws all caution to the winds!

                                                 We all flew to Delhi and travelled by road to Shimla. Reached Shimla at night had a homely dinner in a beautiful bungalow. The next morning, we opened our eyes to find ourselves in a Paradise! Our bungalow was beautifully nestled on a small hill surrounded by winding roads lined by beautiful pine trees and lovely colorful flowers. After a beautiful walk and a breakfast; our driver for the trip; Mr. Raju arrived. We all set out for Spiti Valley! Since ours was a road trip Mr. Raju kept us entertained with his stories about celebrity sightings. Spiti valley is a famous location for film shoots. He highlighted the fact that Akshay Kumar sat in his jeep and we are all sitting in the same privileged vehicle!

                                                         With local stories and beautiful views as our companions; we reached Kalpa (9711 feet); Lord Shiva’s summer home having majestic views of the Kinner Kailash range and Jorkandan Peaks right outside our hotel window. It was beginning to get extremely cold at nights for the month of May and there were no heaters in rooms as it was required that way for acclimatization. Hence thermals out. We enjoyed the beauty of the town and the next day set out for Tabo (12,000 feet). As we headed for Tabo we noticed that the landscape was changing, the pine trees had vanished, vegetation was getting scarce. Color brown had taken over the color green. And of course, the color blue; blue skies and blue river gushing with water of melted glaciers were constant companions. How not to mention the Himalayas! The mighty mountain stood with pride showing us different moods and colors of nature, some beautiful, some grim, some threatening; and we watched dumbfounded! Tabo has a 1010-year-old monastery; and awesome views to offer. From Tabo; my thermals gave up, and I kept shivering all night even with socks and gloves on. Our next stop was Dhankar (12,774 feet) which also has a beautiful monastery on a treacherous mountain top. From Dhankar, my personal misadventure started; I began feeling quite tired. I dismissed it as travel fatigue. We then reached Kaza (12,470 feet), here we were to stay put for 3 days to acclimatize. Clearly fate had other plans for me.

Kaza; Day#1: Now even the days felt increasingly cold for me. I was always under a jacket plus a thermal inner while my 6 yr old daughter roamed around in thermals without any complains. The mustard oil that I carried helped me survive the night in that heater-less room under loads of blankets. Next morning, sleep deprived, I still set out to follow our travel itinerary. Alas, the body doesn’t understand travel plans. Our trip for the day had just begun and I threw up. Our driver cum guide made an emergency stop-over; gave me tea and crocin and asked me to take rest. His attitude was way too casual and hence I thought I will feel better rather soon. We came back to our hotel as I threw up 3 more times. My husband informed the hotel staff and they were very helpful and kept assuring that its AMS and will pass. I kept throwing up almost every couple of hours and denied eating anything. The good hotel staffers kept checking on me. They brought me a tea made of fresh Himalayan berries every couple of hours. I write today that it tasted good, but then; it felt inhuman. Even worse; my husband ensured that I finish that tea.

Kaza; Day#2: The next day while I was confined in our room, the rest of the family left for the day, my husband decided to stay back and ensure I drink that tea. Our room was on the second floor and due to low levels of oxygen, climbing stairs was a mammoth task, hence I avoided it completely. From our hotel room window, we watched the sky change colors, the dust storm come and go, we could count the number of shrubs in the vast expanse of land, there were no trees. I could sleep a little during the day; at night the cold kept me stark awake and using the washroom at night was no less than a third-degree torture.

Kaza; Day#3: I had started eating but I felt very weak and kept throwing up frequently. The hotel staff then advised us to visit the hospital. As our driver/guide had taken the rest of the family for the tour of the day, the hotel arranged a vehicle to drop us at the government hospital of Kaza. The good driver gave us one of his mobile phones and asked to call him once we are done. In Spiti valley; no mobile service provider except BSNL works and we didn’t have the required one.

Kaza Hospital: For the first time in my life I stepped into a government hospital. For my expectations; it was very clean. There were clear arrows marked in English and Hindi to guide us to the OPD. A young doctor checked me and confirmed that I was suffering from AMS, she asked me to drink more water and prescribed few medicines and asked to collect it from the medicine counter. Before leaving we asked her about fees; she said, “No consultation fees, you can donate if you like.” We thanked her and left the OPD and decided to donate for the hospital. Following the same marked arrows; we reached the small window of the medicine counter. That guy handed us the medicines, explained how and when to take them. We asked him the total cost and he replied, “Medicines are free, you can donate if you like.” Now we were even more determined to donate however a donation box was no where to be found. We thought that we must have missed it at the entry. My husband went in search of the donation box as I wandered to a nearby temple. My husband came back after his search yielded no results. We again headed to the medicine counter and asked the guy about the donation box. Imagine our shock, even at 12,470 feet; he said the donation box is on the first floor! Shocked, surprised and weak; I simply stood there while my husband went up panting; to find the donation box and put something into it.

I really repent not being able to see that humble donation box!

                                                    These people’s simplicity, contentment and lack of greed despite their daily hardships in an extremely rugged terrain has floored me beyond measure. These qualities are so rare that it is very hard to believe they even exist. The more I try to forget this trip; the more I think about it. Returning for another visit to this place is a scary thought but the strange thing is that; I frequently have thoughts of re-visiting! I like it; in the mountains; they are so hugely enormous that they show us our insignificance. They teach us humility and once we submit our egos to nature; we achieve contentment and tranquility.

                                            Ruskin Bond has rightly put it in his book; Rain in the Mountains: Notes from the Himalayas: “It is always the same with mountains. Once you have lived with them for any length of time, you belong to them. There is no escape.”