Antony Varghese, better known as Pepe, his character from the blockbuster hit debut Angamaly Diaries, is an avid travel lover. Like all travel buffs, he too had to put on hold all travel plans of 2020 owing to Covid and the subsequent restrictions. Around December, however, when the first wave of Covid had passed and travel opened up, Antony decided enough was enough, called up his friend Shabil and said, ‘let’s go to Manali’. It so happened that another friend Vaisakh Vadakkeveedu, a veteran of Himalaya trips, was going on a trip to the same place with another group, and Antony decided to join them. And those ten days turned out to be sweeter than the trips so far, perhaps from being cooped up inside the house for the better part of the year, says the actor.

The group of friends, all of whom work in the film field, have also made a little film of their trip, the first part of which they have released on YouTube titled ‘Wabi Sabi’ named after a homestay they stayed in at Manali. Sani Yas, one of the group, has directed it.

Meanwhile, Antony is awaiting the release of two of his films – Ajagajantharam, by the same director of the successful Swathanthryam Ardharathriyil, and Anapparambile World Cup, a film based on football.

Over to Antony Varghese.
I had been to Manali, Simla etc before, but had travelled in cars and stayed in cosy cottages with electric heaters, so nothing had prepared me for what lay ahead in this trip. My friend and I flew from Kochi to Chandigarh via Mumbai, and from there the six of us embarked on a ten-hour journey by cab to Kasol in Himachal Pradesh, to join Vaisakh and team. The road ends there and from that point you had to start climbing. At first, we were all excited about trekking for the first time. It was a steep snowy slope with gorges on either side, and then I realized mine were not exactly trekking shoes. Fresh snow is actually easy climb on, but then the sun was out and all the snow had turned to slippery ice. Within a few minutes of climbing, I was slipping dangerously and realised I couldn’t go on. ‘Let’s go back and stay somewhere down there’, I frantically told Shabin, who was also near to fainting from fear. Finally, I borrowed Vaisakh’s trekking shoes while Shabil was carried all the way by a local. We somehow reached the destination, the village of Kalga, after a nearly two-hour climb. There was snow all around and the view was so breathtaking that we forgot the ardous climb instantly.

The cottage we stayed in at Kalga, named Gypsy House, also had spectacular views but then it didn’t have electric heating and it goes to -7 degrees at night. Burning firewood was the only source of heat and that’s when you experience the actual climate of the Himalayas. When sleeping you have to lie absolutely still inside your blankets. Shift just a little and you get a sharp gust of cold air! Going to the toilet was the next challenge, as you have to rush in and do your thing in those few moments when the sunlight comes in. If you accidentally wash your face with water, you’re done for.

Our next stop was Manali, where we stayed at a homestay named Wabi Sabi for the next few days, which had heating thankfully. Wherever you looked, there were magnificent views, again. At Manali, we visited the Solang Valley, which is a hotspot for couples, the Hadimba Temple and the Rohtang pass. But before we could reach the other side, the military made us go back, some VIP was visiting apparently. All through we followed Covid protocol, and most tourists too did, though Manali was crowded like always.

Food was mostly whatever could be eaten fresh and hot, like noodles and chapati and dal. We also had momos and mutton soup from the famous Mathaji’s eatery, run by a Nepali lady and her family. But you don’t feel like eating much there, and I found myself having lots of cups of hot tea and coffee though I’m not much of a fan otherwise. The funny thing is that it costs you just 500-600 rupees a day in these places, including the food. The villagers there are poor but very good-hearted people. The women are the hard workers in these villages, they wake up early in the morning to tend to farms and cows etc. Another interesting aspect about the villages there is the large-scale cultivation of marijuana, for various legal products. For medical use, soap, cosmetics, there’s even a kind of concrete made with hemp added called ‘hemprete’. It’s stronger and the heat or the cold doesn’t penetrate the walls made of it. However, all of it is expensive because of the low scale of production.

We also met all kinds of interesting people during the trip, at Gypsy house, there was foreigner lady from Chile, who had named herself Shakthi, and was all about meditation and spirituality. She came because she had a dream one day about meditating in the Himalayas, apparently. The owner of Gypsy House is a Malayali. He had come to Himalayas for a visit and finally decided to stay back. Then there was this guy from France who stays in a cottage in Kalga there nine months of the year, and goes somewhere to work for three months, to pay for the rest of the year. French Baba, they call him. We met a Malayali named Babushka, who lives in an isolated cottage in an apple orchard, situated high above the town area. Babushka is one of the two from Kerala from India who has been on a polar expedition. We had great fun staying there where we grilled chicken etc. soaking in the view all around.

And I can’t but forget the dogs we met all along the way. The village dogs accompany you on your treks all the way up, and are no less than a human guide. They’re very friendly and loving but they established themselves as the leader of your team and will walk ahead, making sure the route is clear and safe for you. Anyone will become a dog lover if they visit the Himalayas. As for the children there, they can easily scale a steep slope in 15 minutes, something which would take an hour for us, as many of them do it every day to go to school.

On the tenth day, we finally bid goodbye to the Himalayas and all it had to offer, with heavy hearts. The treks and the cold were tough but if someone asks me if I would like to go for a Himalayan trip again, I’d say yes in a heartbeat. And I’m definitely going again, after Covid days are over.