Hello Wilderness, Our Old Friend
“Do you believe in forest spirits?” she asked, whirling around to eyeball me. Do I? I searched my mind for an answer, but ran into a mess of opposing thoughts instead.
“DO you?” she asked again, her tone more urgent. Eyes trying to will an answer out of me.
“Yes, I do” I heard myself say, from someplace inside where thoughts had never had a say. Nodding her approval, she walked on as she led the way.
Smoke spirals danced into the forest air from the incense sticks she swirled around, and I longed to feel as one with the ‘spirits’ as she seemed to. A connection as tangible as it was subtle. Like smoke with air.
‘More things on heaven and earth than your philosophers may dream of,’ the moment reminded me before my brain could ridicule that longing. Everything around seemed to suggest that the skeptic in me go take a hike. Which is what we had set out to do that morning, me and these six girls I’d met in Bir a few days ago. Unified by impulsiveness, we felt sure of finding the waterfall hidden in the upper reaches of this hill skirting the village.
An idea that seemed less and less bright the deeper we climbed into that endless maze of unmarked trails. Seven girls/women heading into a remote corner of nowhere, not knowing what or who we may run into. No SOS call, no Plan B, not even that fiery old companion from school days – pepper spray. And fast-slipping daylight hours under that tangle of canopies. Only one of us knew the way and she was now blithely lighting and swirling incense around at every turn. Looking at the trees as if in dialogue with them. Though, in her defence, they must’ve had a forest’s worth of stories to share.
As the eldest of the lot – the youngest being 14 – I felt the weight of responsibility and regretted skipping all the safety measures I usually employ as a woman travelling in India or anywhere for that matter. The reckless girl in me had gotten the better of the pragmatic woman I often try to be. A recklessness echoed by that of my six companions. Raucous laughter over ridiculous non-jokes, cautions over mis-steps and slippery rocks, and random head-counts flew back and forth throughout.
Given the limited daylight left, we stopped only for absolutely legit reasons. Such as screaming names into the valley, posing for goofy pictures, tossing my 500ml water bottle around – shared inexplicably between 7 thirsty hikers. Another example of the splendid irrationality of the entire affair, which I had by now begun to relish.
The steep climb gave way to mossy rocks and the occasional mountain goat. Over boulders dotting streams, we hauled each other with an agility we didn’t know we had. Negotiating those thorny bushes, twisted trees, wide streams and smooth boulders isn’t a job for the logical brain, I remember telling my brain. The body has a natural intelligence all its own, and I could feel mine taking over as we crossed obstacles big, small and dicey. My hands and feet instinctively knowing where to land, with how much pressure, and what to grasp. ‘Listen to your body’ – my Yoga line seemed more apt here than it had on any indoor flat surface.
“Here, hold this!” she ordered as she suddenly handed me the incense sticks and ran down to check on the others. It was reassuring to see that our guide did have one foot in this world after all. And a quick foot at that, gone before I could blink. I stood there wrapped by the wilderness and that feeling of being alone in the wild, which makes the company of trees feel like a long overdue reunion. Not quite sure what to do with the sticks burning shorter and shorter in the grip of my sweaty palm. Half-goofy and half-mystical, I waved them around at the trees. Small sheepish circles building up to larger less self-conscious shapes, as I gave in to all that the moment would have me believe.
My little mystical reverie was broken soon enough by the footsteps and chatter of my newfound girl gang. The roar of the waterfall was soon within ear shot. Loud enough to seem only a hop, skip and jump away. Except the hopping, skipping and jumping was to be over some broader streams with colder water, more massive boulders, and deceptively slippery stones piled up in those impossible ways only nature can pull off. Until we met our destination.
Nature in its raw beauty renders most people speechless, but not this bunch of fine young ladies. The shrillest of screams that normally greet ghosts in horror movies, now greeted the raw beauty of water thrashing down the rocks. The next hour was a mad melée – to put it mildly. Leaping, whooping, shrieking, stumbling, slipping, swimming, splashing, and everything in between. Clambering to the top of the waterfall, and getting in and out of clothes and water in no particular order.
Extraordinary – the word formed as I momentarily sat on a rock, marvelling at the moments exploding around me. Watching these young women answer the waterfall’s roar with a roar of their own, every bit as formidable – if not more. High-fiving the wild and free waters with all that was wild and free in them. How unreal and life-affirming. That a group of females could demonstrate this level of freedom – this wildly – in a public space in a deeply patriarchal country such as ours. Not a soul around to diminish or control or impede us while we seized the day.
Many chattering teeth, freezing bones and drenched clothes later we began the descent back to the village. Half-exhausted, half-electrified and completely grateful for the experience of absolute abandon this day had been for us.
Looking back a year later, I realise our destination all along hadn’t been the waterfall – but our total celebration of it, and more importantly, ourselves.
When we don’t let anything/anyone hold us back or restrict our expressions or edit our experiences, we are a force of nature in ourselves. Born to erupt and not for a moment meant to be eroded. And those roaring waters had just mirrored that.
I don’t know about forest spirits, but I definitely believe in the spirits of wild young women everywhere.
An edited version of this story was published in The Hindu newspaper here: http://www.thehindu.com/life-and-style/travel/a-group-of-women-travellers-seek-forest-spirits-and-a-secret-waterfall-at-bir/article18138604.ece