High & Dry in Lansdowne!

An interesting travelogue with a note of caution to all with wanderlust syndrome. Plan well and Travel safe.

Special Feature : Navy Day

By Cdr KP Sanjeev Kumar

Sometime in the first decade of this millennium, this southerner took up his first posting to Naval Headquarters, Delhi. After the initial hiccups, we settled down respectably in a rented house at Sector 28, Arun Vihar, Noida. The high point of my working life those days was the air-conditioned army bus service from Noida to Sena Bhavan.

For the first timer, Delhi offers a bouquet of weekend destinations. Majestic Shivalik hills, Kasauli, Shimla, Nainital, Kullu Manali– all this & more just a few hours’ drive away. IHQ MoD (Navy)’s 5-day routine allowed two days every week for officers to regain their sanity. The army bus service was a rich resource for holiday stories & travel planning.

Wanderlust soon crept up on us. With some basic inter-service coordination, we were able to do Shimla & Nainital. The maiden visit to hills, stay at ARTRAC mess at Shimla & Indian Army’s holiday home in Nainital left my ‘2+2’ family outfit gasping “yeh dil maange more!”

Indian Army’s guest rooms & their “mehman nawazi” (hospitality) has to be seen to be believed. Coming from the navy, we knew no naval facilities north of Kotah House on Shahjahan Road. Spouse M had taken a particular liking to army “facilities” by then. Weekend getaways beckoned.

Not all fauji messes or holiday homes are equal. Location is important. Some are booked months in advance; especially the ones in the hills or next to beaches. The Garhwal Rifles Regimental Centre (GRRC) at Lansdowne in Pauri Garhwal district of Uttarakhand is one such exceptional centre (that also houses a holiday home).

After a few trips where “acco” could be easily “managed”, I turned complacent. On a whim, I proposed a Saturday morning drive out to Lansdowne. It was quickly accepted by M & the boys. Bags were packed, our Maruti was fuelled & loaded for a pre-dawn cross-border strike. Excitement was high. Spouse M is a big Ruskin Bond fan, just as I was of John Denver in childhood. “Country roads, take me home, to the place I belong” was the predominant sentiment. Except that we belonged to the plains of Kerala but were pining for a Garhwali “mountain momma”.

There was a small problem. I had no “booking”. In aviation parlance, it was a flight plan without ATC clearance. As we drove out of Noida, M raised the obvious question: “do we have acco?”. I smiled smugly: “NO“. There was hardly a murmur from the rear seat; the boys had fallen asleep. M wasn’t impressed, but her trust in my ability to “manage” had recently been burnished with some great getaways.

The car was chewing up miles steadily. “Shouldn’t you check on the acco?, M asked again as we raced past Meerut. “The army never disappoints. It’s called ‘reserves’. They always have something up their sleeve. We’ll manage“, I replied with lamb-like innocence of a naval first-timer in Delhi, generously borrowing phrases from Exercise Trishakti in DSSC (Staff College). Apparently, our recent steel pipe gal gaya episode had turned “past pain, easily forgotten” in the hypnotic charm of Garhwal Himalayas.

“Besides, I have friends in high places“, I added Delhiesque, with an odd coursemate or two on the staff of senior officers in HQ. Some of them were so resourceful they could conjure up guest rooms where none existed.

“Well, then about time you dialled a few“, spouse M suggested with the fortitude of a naval wife who has often lent a shoulder to heavy steel trunks while “bhaiyyas” from a sister service did the heavy lifting.

I laughed out loud & dismissed M’s suggestion, whistling a song from Dev Anand’s movie Hum Dono. We were halfway to Lansdowne by the time I considered her suggestion seriously & stopped playing “Guide”. I dialled my best buddy & coursemate — none less than the staff officer to the naval chief. It was a Saturday morning; he picked up the call after four rings.

I explained my situation, underplaying my predicament tactfully like a duck in water. Sandy — the quintessential officer & gentleman — expressed his reservations & sought few minutes to dial his “resources”. His return call a few minutes later brought grim news.

“Turn back, KP“, he said firmly. My “what about reserves?” protests didn’t move him. “KP, its holiday season & you are heading to a place that’s booked months in advance. RTB“, he said. (*Return to base)

My involuntary gulp and pursed lips after the call alerted my biggest critic. “So we have acco or not?” M addressed the elephant in the car.

“No. Sandy says go back. But WTF! You see, we naval officers are like this only. We give up too soon. We should learn from the army. I am sure Garhwal Rifles will welcome us with open arms. We will manage, don’t worry“, I replied without executing the Williamson’s turn prescribed by top echelon of the navy.

After driving almost 10 hours for what was supposed to be a six hour drive — last few hours off-roading in a serpentine river bed — we finally hit metal & started uphill for the last miles to Lansdowne & the imagined warm embrace of Garhwal Rifles Regimental Centre. There was a nip in the air but no cell phone signal — both ominous signs for an Indian family out on vacation without a confirmed booking or camping tents from Decathlon

Those were days before Sixth Pay Commission, Google Maps & GPS-equipped cars. Our Esteem LXi & Nokia 1100 offered no navigation assistance. I missed a couple of crucial turns near Kotdwar & we ended up on a dry river bed as the shadows lengthened. It turns dark pretty early in the hills. We were practically driving on boulders; our low-chassis Esteem LXi taking to the air each time we skimmed over a well-rounded Himalayan boulder. My self-esteem was doing the exact opposite.

After driving almost 10 hours for what was supposed to be a six hour drive — last few hours off-roading in a serpentine river bed — we finally hit metal & started uphill for the last miles to Lansdowne & the imagined warm embrace of Garhwal Rifles Regimental Centre. There was a nip in the air but no cell phone signal — both ominous signs for an Indian family out on vacation without a confirmed booking or camping tents from Decathlon.

The main entrance of GRRC was both welcoming & intimidating at once. We snagged the first tripwire. The sentry at the gate wanted to know where we were headed. My naval ID didn’t exactly throw open the gates. “Jai Hind sa’ab, booking hai?”, the sentry on duty sought. “Apne duty officer se baat karao“, I replied, half expecting a young officer to be manning the gangway like it was some warship. My mental master caution light was now flashing.

A duty Havildar appeared. Unlike the gangway of a naval ship, officers were nowhere to be seen. The sentry had seemingly forewarned the duty JCO of the season’s hazard — gate crashers with a military ID.

“Sir, yahan booking ke bina andar allowed nahi hai“, he said. My worst fear was confirmed. We were being refused entry. M did a facepalm. “Hotel California” played on the car’s music system, except that we were already “checked-out” before being “checked-in”. The tall iron gates remained shut.

Now, I didn’t know anybody or anything in GRRC, let alone the hierarchy or wiring diagram of a regimental centre. Even now I often confuse Gorkha Rifles and Garhwal Rifles. Since I am not ex-NDA, I didn’t have any army coursemates I could dial either. “I want to speak to the adjutant“, I asserted, mustering the confidence of a naval Joint Director. I faintly recalled some tall ‘adjutant fairy tales’ from my DSSC days.

“Sir, mere paas sahab ka number nahi hai“, pat came the reply.

“Toh phir mess secretary sa’ab ka number dijiye“, I persisted.

“Sir, sa’ab ne bola hai phone number kisi ko nahin dena“, shot back the JCO politely.

“Eh? Yeh kya baat hui? I want to speak to the CO then“, I escalated the service request, little realising I didn’t even have a booking, not caring if the centre had a CO or Commandant. Havildar Ram Kishan shook his head politely. It was NO GO. I downgraded my expectations & went for the great Indian “jugaad” trick.

“Dekho Ram Kishan sa’ab. Hum navy waale hain. Kaafi door se aaye hain (the Rocky Balboa battering we received over Himalayan boulders was still hurting my quarterdeck). Kaafi der ho chuki hai. Itni der raat kahan jayenge? Kuch toh jugaad lagao“, I went down to the wire.

But Ram Kishan had seen many summers (& gate-crashers like me) in his life. “Sir, maaf kijiye lekin kuch nahi ho sakta. Aap kripya laut jayein“, he let us have it upfront while my eyes did a backflip.

That produced an instant response — heels clicked & a smart salute followed; he let us in. We drove inside, drooled at the Officers’ Mess & annexe, chock-a-block with guests warming up for the evening, set against the majestic backdrop of the Pauri Garhwal Mountains. Thanks to spouse M, we had a glimpse of what we were going to miss that evening

By now, the kids were demanding food, shivering in the cold mountain air. Spouse M pulled out her ace. Stretching across the front seat, she told Ram Kishan sweetly, “Ram Kishan ji, aap buzurg ho. Hum aap se behas kyon karein? Aisa karte hain, hum ek drive le lete hain centre ke andar, itni door jo aaye hain. Thoda holiday home ka darshan kar lete hain, phir chale jayenge?“.

That produced an instant response — heels clicked & a smart salute followed; he let us in. We drove inside, drooled at the Officers’ Mess & annexe, chock-a-block with guests warming up for the evening, set against the majestic backdrop of the Pauri Garhwal Mountains. Thanks to spouse M, we had a glimpse of what we were going to miss that evening.

My stock had fallen so low in the car by then, I felt like a rubber doormat from Atta Market. But when the going gets tough, the tough get angry. “Wtf yaar! I want to meet the 2 I/C & express my displeasure“, I blurted desperately, trying to regain a foothold on the precipitous situation.

“Wow. Like that’s going to change anything“, M chimed in, never the one to miss a bender.

After rounding land’s end at Lansdowne, I drove to the address of 2I/C GRRC, a senior Lt Col if I recall correctly, and rung the bell. A smart officer in kurta-pajamas opened the door (it was Saturday evening). “Yes, what can I do for you?” he asked. By now, I had blown my fuse. I submitted a laundry list of complaints which was met with utter disbelief — “you actually drove all this way without a booking?!” It was my “yeh PSPO nahi jaanta” moment.

When we drove out of GRRC, it was dark, cold & lonely. The quaint one-horse-town had already gone to sleep & there was no Ruskin Bond serenading us with bedtime stories. We found what looked like a hotel about 2 Kms downhill from GRRC. After the exquisite GRRC mess, the structure looked like a two-storey card-swiping machine. At Rs 6500 per night, we got a single room without a view. A collective gasp of despair went up as we opened the room & saw the underwhelming arrangements

The 2I/C pulled out his last reserve. He offered to put us up in his official quarters at no cost, apologizing for the inconvenience caused to a naval officer who thought his Colaba Causeway celebrity status would open doors in the cantonment of Garhwal! “This is my temporary accommodation. But I can provide you with a single room, warm bed & cold drinks“, he offered graciously. I politely declined. My globetrotter image had already taken a major beating. It couldn’t possibly be resurrected in a brother officer’s temporary quarters.

When we drove out of GRRC, it was dark, cold & lonely. The quaint one-horse-town had already gone to sleep & there was no Ruskin Bond serenading us with bedtime stories. We found what looked like a hotel about 2 Kms downhill from GRRC. After the exquisite GRRC mess, the structure looked like a two-storey card-swiping machine. At Rs 6500 per night, we got a single room without a view. A collective gasp of despair went up as we opened the room & saw the underwhelming arrangements.

As we drove back to Noida next morning (with a headache as return gift from Lansdowne), I mulled over what could’ve easily been one of our memorable vacations. “Never again on a wing & a prayer for a family outing”, I promised myself. I also downgraded GRRC’s holiday season ratings. But full marks to the Lt Col who offered us his warm bedroom without even consulting his HQ (read “better half”)!

So the next time you feel wanderlust with or without “army bookings”, remember this story! If you have a memorable “holiday home story” to recount, I am all ears.

Plan well, travel safe my friends!

Travel woes! “Chale Bhutan, pahunche Kalimpong” — The author with spouse M and gen next on another holiday, few years later. Read ‘Bhutan — A Travelogue‘ for more!

 

-The author is a former navy test pilot who has flown over 4200 hours on 24 different aircraft. He has worked closely with HAL and industry in projects of national importance and undertaken flight test projects in India and abroad. He calls himself ‘full-time aviator, part-time writer’ and maintains a diligent blog at www.kaypius.com. He can be reached at kipsake1@gmail.com. Views expressed are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of Raksha Anirveda.