A Lone Saunterer In the Age of Destinations

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LOCAL residents have gotten fed up with offering me lifts on the road to our hilltop bank and post office. They typically drive up the steep road to Landour in third (or is it fourth?) gear, see me plodding along on foot, and out of the goodness of their hearts, stop and open the door for me.Although I hate to disappoint them, I close the door, thank them profusely, and insist that I am enjoying my walk. They don't believe me, naturally; but with a shrug, the drivers get into gear again and take off, although sometimes they have difficulty getting started, the hill being very steep. As I don't wish to insult them by reaching the bank first, I sit on the parapet wall and make encouraging sounds until they finally take off. Then I renew my leisurely walk up the hill, taking note of the fact th at the wild geraniums and periwinkles have begun to flower, and that the whistling thrushes are nesting under the culvert over which those very cars pass every day. Most people, car drivers anyway, think I'm a little eccentric. So be it. I probably am eccentric! But having come to the Himalayan foothills over 25 years ago in order to enjoy walking among them, I am not about to stop now, just because everyone else has stopped walking. The hills are durable in their attractions, and my legs have proved durable too, so why should we not continue together as before? The friends who once walked beside me now have their shiny new cars or capacious vans, and seldom emerge from them, unless it be to seek refreshment at some wayside tea shop or cafe. Now I'm no fitness freak. I don't jog either. If I did, I would almost certainly miss the latest wildflower to appear on the hillside, and I would not be able to stop awhile and talk to other people on the road - villagers with their milk and vegetables, all-weather postmen, cheeky schoolchildren, inquisitive tourists - or to exchange greetings with cats, dogs, stray cows, and runaway mules. Runaway mules are friendly creatures except toward their owners. I chat with the owners too, when they come charging up the road. I try to put them in good humor, so as to save the mules from a beating. Most of the people I have mentioned are walkers from necessity. Those who walk for pleasure grow fewer by the day. I don't mean long-distance trekkers or high altitude climbers, who are almost professional in their approach to roads and mountains. I mean people such as myself who are not great athletes but who enjoy sauntering through the woods on a frosty morning, leaving the main road and slithering downhill into a bed of ferns, or following a mountain stream until you reach the small spring in the rocks where it begins.... But, no - everyone must have a destination in mind, for this is the age of destinations, be it the Taj Mahal, the casino at Cannes, France, or the polar icecap. I glanced at a best-selling book of records the other day, and my eye lighted upon an entry stating that somebody's grandmother had knitted a scarf that was over 20 miles long. Where was it going, I wondered, and who would be wearing it? The book didn't say. It was just another destination, another "first" to be recorded. Personally I prefer people who come in second. I feel safer with them. It takes a car less than five minutes up the hill to get to the bank. It takes me roughly 25 minutes. But there is never a dull minute. Apart from having interesting animal and human encounters, there are the changes that occur almost daily on the hill slopes: the ferns turning from green to gold, the Virginia creepers becoming a dark crimson, horse chestnuts falling to the ground. On today's walk I spot a redstart, come down early from higher altitudes to escape the snow. He whistles cheerfully in a medlar tree. Wild ducks are flying south. There they go, high over the valley, heading for the lakes and marshlands. If there's no one on the road, and I feel like a little diversion, I can always sing. I don't sing well, but there's no one to hear me except for a startled woodpecker, so I can go into my Nelson Eddy routine, belting out the songs my childhood gramophone taught me. "Tramp, Tramp, Tramp,Stouthearted Men,Song of the Open Road"! No one writes marching songs now, so I have to rely on the old ones. Above me the blue sky, around me the green forest, below me the dusty plains. Presently I am at Char-Dukaan Four Shops and the bank and post office. Letters posted, I enter the bank, to be greeted effusively by the manager - not because I have come to make a large deposit, but because he is that rarity among bank managers, a nature lover! When he learns that I have just seen the first redstart of the winter, he grows excited and insists that I take him to it. As we are nearing the office tea break, he sets off with me down the road and, to our mutual satisfaction and delight, the redstart is still in the medlar tree, putting on a special performance seemingly for our benefit. The manager returns to his office, happy to be working at this remote hilltop branch. Both staff and customers will find him the most understanding and sympathetic of managers today, for has he not just seen the first white-capped redstart to fly into Landour for the winter? That's as good a "first" as any in those books of records. As long as there are nature-loving bank managers, I muse on my way home, there's still hope for this little old world. And for bank depositors, too!

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