Many doubts rose in my mind about his abilities and intentions to honor the contract when I spoke to Yogendra Joshi (YJ) for the first time in his office on August 15, 2014. YJ actually inadvertently confirmed the doubts in Nauti on August 17. He was General Manager (GM) of Rishikesh-based DreamCatcher Adventure that I hired for my once-in-a-lifetime trip for photographing and trekking the Nanda Raj Jat trail.
Since the first correspondence in June, he was insisting on full payment in advance. Although he agreed to book the trip for 25% of total payment (INR 13,500), he insisted that the remaining payment should be made before starting the trip in Nauti. So, I gave him the remaining payment in Nauti on August 17. But he refused to take the payment. He took only INR 35,000. The total money (25% advance + INR 35,000 = INR 48,500) collected was sufficient to run the camps up to Wan only as per the daily rate (INR 3,200 per person, per day). The doubts again appeared in my mind.
But I wanted to do this once-in-life-time trek and I had no alternatives. So I took the risk. As the days passed by, my doubts turned into unwanted reality.
He started as an average service provider who had some kind of grudges against clients he had served in the past. The service level deteriorated as we moved higher, especially beyond Wan, the last village, when actually I needed his full support. The service completely evaporated from Pathar Nachauniya, when arduous high altitude trek began.
A Few Nice Gestures
- A few times he served breakfast and lunch of my choice that is dal, roti, some sabji, and apples instead of puri and paratha served in the free food stalls. Otherwise food was just okay. In fact, I hired him and paid the daily rate asked by him because I did not want to eat in those stalls. I did not negotiate even for one paisa.
- Another nice gesture was that he pitched a toilet tent for changing after a dip in the Pindari River at Chepudau (Chepudyia). And served piping hot pakoras on request.
- At Ida Badhani camping site, Sulabh’s temporary toilets were directly facing the frequented high trail. So anybody intentionally or unintentionally could peep into the toilets. So, he pasted a newspaper on the wide open space between the door and the roof of the toilet on my request. But he sent Devendra to crosscheck what I said.
- On the first day, I tried to follow the procession barefoot. But I am not use to walking barefoot. I called up him to get my shoes from Nanda Devi Mandir in Nauti to Rameshwar Temple in Nauti. He brought them. It was a big relief and I gained speed.
- He served nuts on some days.
But he played a spoilsport in more number of ways:
Competing with Client
The contract ensured services of an escort for entire trek. However, one day GM told me that the porter-cum-escort (Devendra) would first help him in winding up the camp and then accompany me for the day’s trek. On other days, he quietly stopped the escort from joining me until the camping chores were over. This was one of the reasons of starting late and missing event-specific activities and charm of mountain mornings.
Crowd Phobia, Home Sickness, and Other Rants
- In one of the conversations, he confessed that he was crowd phobic. He came to Nanda Raj Jat purely for business reasons. Another day he told me he was feeling home sick.
- Why did a crowd phobic person venture for jam packed high altitude event like Nanda Raj Jat?
- Why a man who could not stay away from his family went on a 25-day long high altitude adventure?
- On many occasions, he reiterated that he could trek as fast as the locals but his client could not. Ironically, he was always among the last few.
Poor Knowledge about the Event
He had very superficial knowledge about Nanda Raj Jat. He was not aware of the daily schedule for performances and rituals which I intended to see and capture. He remembered only one thing that I could not walk fast to reach early and witness the entire program.
YJ did not even informed about Chandaniyaghat campsite. We were supposed to spend one night at Chandaniyaghat where a number of other pilgrims camped. But my outfitter never showed up. I was told by police officials that there was no camping place in Chandaniyaghat. I had to trek up to Lata Khopri.
Poor Timing of Setting up Camps
YJ consistently started shifting camps from one halt point to another point late daily. Until Wan, his vehicle moved only when the police stopped the traffic for smooth movement of the procession. So, he was always stuck in the traffic. He ignored the period when the road was open for the vehicular traffic. This period was announced from public address system on many occasions.
By the time he reached the campsite, the site would be filled with tents. He would smile and say there was no place and he was stuck in traffic jam. Then tent would be pitched in unwanted places. There would be hardly any place for pitching the toilet tent. Every time I was sending Devendra to search the campsite. Only twice YJ texted the camp location.
So, most of the time camp was not ready when I reached at the night halt. But adventure travel business ethics (one of his favorite phrases) expect that travel agent should move fast and reach at the camping site before his clients.
On August 18, 2014, finding YJ and the tent was a big exercise in Ida Badhani. YJ escorted me for half of the trek. Thereafter, I managed alone. YJ was simply not bothered about where his client was. I called him again and again to find the camping location. One of local pilgrims finally helped me in finding the camp site. What happened to the promise of escort?
Client as Watchkeeper
On Mundoli-Wan trek day, he was again late on the pretext of traffic jam. When I reached Wan camp was not ready. He was standing next to his jeep loaded with gear. I was already annoyed because Devendra disappeared from Lohaganj without informing. He met me at the end of the day trail and gave a lame excuse for disappearing.
We walked for half an hour in search of a camping place. Then GM and his boys went for load ferry leaving me behind at the campsite to keep an eye on the gear. By the time they finished ferrying and pitching tents, it was dark. It began to drizzle. The escort was again engaged in camping chores. So, there was no escort to walk with me up to the main event site that was a kilometer or more from the camping site.
Selection of Campsites
He selected quite good campsites in seven low altitude villages before Mundoli. Until the trail was running through the villages, events and walking took longer. I never reached at campsite around 12:00 pm or so. I mostly reached at the campsites in late afternoon or after that. My tent was in place when I arrived at most of the sites (seven-eight villages). Luckily, weather favored us.
On August 27, when we arrived at the campsite in Faldiya slightly early than usual, there was no toilet tent. The tent was pitched very late after repeated requests. The campsite was far away from the main event site where Sulabh toilets were available. The next morning, he did not let me use the toilet tent because it was purposely “broken.” So, I had to search the public washrooms for morning chores.
In Mundoli, he selected the most secure campsite for kitchen-cum-his tent. He pitched my tent in the most vulnerable place, a narrow courtyard of a local house that was flooded with guests. Every time the house door opened, people came out, I was at risk of being trampled accidently because there was a little space between the door and the tent.
Extremely Poor or No Arrangements at High Altitude Camps: Garoli Patal, Pathar Nachauniya, Shila Samundra, Chandaniya Ghat, Lata Khopri, Sutol, Ghat
Beyond villages / tree line the weather is unpredictable. The mountain follows the rule of afternoon rain bath. Almost regularly during August-September! The pilgrimage therefore picked up speed. The pilgrims tried to reach before the start of rain so did I. But he was not there.
I reached the day’s halt point before the weather changed its mood in Wan, Garoli Patal, Vedni, Pathar Nachauni and so forth. But the camp was never in place.
For example, on August 30, 2014, I reached Garoli Patal around noon. It was a brilliant day: nice blue sky free of nasty clouds. But camp was not set up. After an hour or so when weather changed its mood and started pounding the meadow, he began pitching the camp.
On the following day, reaching in time at Vedni was also a futile exercise because camp was not ready. Devendra took long to search YJ. By the time we spotted the camp, it started pouring.
On September 1, when Devendra and I reached Pathar Nachauniya in afternoon there was no rain. But there was no clue about YJ. Devendra looked for him and I again served as a watchkeeper. After an hour or so, the rain pitter-patter on the sheet bunkers of the security personnel. But I had no way to vent out my anger that welled up due to his mismanagement and unwanted drenching.
After another hour’s wait YJ appeared. He was leisurely doing reconnaissance for a campsite. By then the rain had created enough mire and made rocks and trail slippery. Finally, he pitched the tents in a peaceful green ground but ignored some basic rules. The toilet tent was pitched a few steps away from the main tent. No privacy. He served half cooked food for dinner.
September 2nd was a long and demanding day. YJ simply disappeared. Devendra and another helper just forced the tent to stand on grass in one extreme corner of the huge camping site. There was no toilet tent. Sleeping bag was dripping wet. When I lied down on the partly wet mattress, my head was in the trough, my chest was on the crest of a mini hill, and my stomach was in a trough… Devendra and the helper disappeared. YJ was not in sight. No food was served.
Next morning, Devendra told me that YJ arrived at the campsite around 10:00 pm. But the GM did not thought of meeting his client. He was not bothered about client’s condition.
It was again a long and hard day, I somehow convinced Devendra to trek with me. Around 6:30 am we started our trek without any breakfast and pack lunch. The security personnel distributed small food bags containing some biscuits and a quarter-liter water bottles to pilgrims. I managed the day with one of these free food bags. Devendra suddenly disappeared before the diversion from where one trail goes up to Homkund and the other trail goes down to Chandaniya Ghat, Lata Khopri, and Sutol. I trekked with other pilgrims. Devendra appeared near small Homkund. He left my rucksack somewhere along the trail. YJ never came to check with his client.
Initially, the night halt was Chandaniya Ghat, a small campsite fully occupied by administration and security personnel. We were forced to walk through the mire up to Lata Khopri. At Lata Khopri, when we reached, it was dead dark and still drizzling. Devendra located the tent with great difficulty. There was no information about YJ. Two tents were pitched somehow by YJ’s brother who was angry because his only client had left him. The brother was without business. I was given an empty tent with a partly wet mattress. There was no sleeping bag. Entering the tent was an exercise. When I asked the brother, Govind, about that mess up. Govind snapped that I had not paid money to him. So it was not his concern.
Another sleepless night without food.
Then I decided enough is enough. I did not try to find YJ. At the next halt Sutol, with Devendra’s help I could manage a bed in a local house.
Food and Kitchen
He neither set up kitchen in Nauti nor in Ida Badhani. In Nauti, he took me to a local dhaba for breakfast on the first day. On the second day in Nauti, he obliged me with black grams and roti that was cooked in a local’s house.
At Ida Badhani, no dinner was served. He suggested that he will bring puri chole, served free at one of the bhandras. But I did not pay him for free food from the bhandra. Since I did not have time to have packed lunch (chana and roti) that day, so, I preferred to eat that during dinner without any fuss.
Next day before leaving Ida Badhani, he served dry white bread slices with a few tomato slices and a tetra juice for breakfast.
Only some of the meals served at lower altitude were reasonably good. The remaining meals were cooked and served casually.
Was Devendra on a Holiday or Duty?
He was slightly more committed than his boss. But from Wan, his commitment also started crumbling.
On Wan route, he disappeared from the pre-decided meeting point in Lohagunj without informing me. After photography, I looked for him in vain for half an hour or so. Then I decided to join the procession. When I reached Wan, Devendra sitting at the end of the trail remorselessly smiled at me. He had an excuse: He went to worship in temple. By the way he was not on a holiday. He was on a duty.
At Roopkund, Devendra pretended to be a seasoned scientific investigator. After climbing in rain I wanted five minutes break before I went and saw the lake. I therefore told him that we would take a five-minute rest before exploring the mysterious lake. He disappeared leaving the luggage behind. I also left the luggage after five minutes and walked down to the lake and found that the investigator was desperately looking for bones everywhere. He ignored me until he completed his investigation. Then he came to me and said: “Oh ! You have come down.” Then I ordered him to fetch my luggage.
These instances of mysterious disappearances continued without any apologies.
Expectations of Travel Service Providers
Both YJ and Devendra expected freebies (e.g. free photos of event and food) but they failed to provide services agreed upon in the contract.
No Apology. Rude Answer: Do not Give Me Money.
Whenever I told YJ about mismanagement, he snapped “Do not pay me.” He never said sorry. But he talked about professionalism every now and then.
I paid advance in the first week of July because YJ cited a genuine reason for the advance: He had to pay porters in advance. He had more than one month for preparation. In fact, I started talking to him in June. And I clearly specified my purpose to join the trip. But he could not find reliable porters, mulewalas, and crew.
Still I honestly settled the bill. But he never even once said sorry for bungling.
In the morning on September 4, YJ drew himself up to his full height for the first time in the entire adventure trip. Otherwise slouching was his habit. He faked machismo to intimidate his client. But he failed to keep his herd (temporary staff) together and keep the promises he made while selling the once-in-life-time-trip.
He authoritatively told me that I should understand (His problems that were actually blatant examples of his mismanagement).