Yesterday, I received an unexpected phone call from Jeetu. ‘Balya, did you get a chance to read Prem’s email? Hey, you must write down all the exciting memories of High Places!’. With a hesitant ‘Yes’, I cut the call; but then it took me back down the memory lane. It was 1985, the year when it all began. And, there was this flood of memories. It must have been July of ’85. I had been working in Saudi Arabia for about a year. During 1982-83, I had completed a yearlong Teacher’s Diploma in Outdoor Education in Scotland. I recollect the way I had paid the fees for the program; it was a loan of about a lac of rupees, a huge amount in those times. The loan was keeping me at bay from my ever-loved freedom and it made me uneasy. In those days, working in the Gulf, seemed to be the only way out this predicament. B.Tech. a degree which I had earned, despite my adventurous escapades, was something I could depend on. That helped me take up a well paying job, first as a Planning Engineer and then as a Project Manager, in the desert land of Saudi Arabia. The only purpose of this job was to pay off my educational loan, and the idea was to quit the job as soon as I pay back the loan and have a little bit more for me.
It was a contract with a full term of two years. At that point it had served my need and I was eager for my ever-loved freedom. Working in Saudi Arabia, even as an engineer is like enslaving yourself with the passport deposited with the company. We were in a ‘Porta-Cabin’, where five engineers were living. With my trekking experience, I had developed my culinary skills, which in handy in the Porta-Cabin; but also helped me gain the respect of others. Surrounding us were the sandy plains, unbearable 52 deg C temperature, and burning hot dry winds. Simple movements were restricted with atrocious regulations and scary punishments. Thousand Riyals for jumping a traffic light, cutting off the hand for stealing, plucking nails if found drunk, such were the petrifying punishments. You were forced into a Mosque, if found loitering around on a Friday during times of Namaz, to watch the people being punished! I was a witness to a cruel punishment of stoning a woman to death for adultery. Even today, these thoughts are hair raising and like the horrible tales of the Arabian Nights. Necessity is the mother of invention, which led us to getting packed grape juice and yeast from the supermarket to make our own wine. And I became an expert in that too. A ‘heady’ pastime!
With a determination of leaving Saudi, I began to look for ways to get my passport back. You required an Exit Visa! One of my General Manager was totally against it. He expressed, ‘Hey, better complete the two-year contract and get good money, bonus and that will be for your own good!’. Later I came to know he was eyeing me for an alliance with his daughter! My purpose of paying back the loan was served and I had ideas of exploring Europe before returning back to India. Airline tickets were expensive in Saudi, and hence I took the help of some of my British friends to get the tickets from London. Major obstacle was the Exit Visa and getting back the passport. This is where I tried my best to sweet talk and tell a convincing story. I convinced them that I would not leave the job and return to Saudi after a two-week vacation in Europe. Surprisingly, thinking it to be true they arranged an exit visa and returned my passport! They were confident that, a poor middle class and straight forward Indian like me would definitely return for the twenty-five to thirty thousand Rupees. For me, this price of my freedom was like a song. It was Thursday, and I was booked on a flight a week later. Promptly, I rescheduled my ticket for the same Thursday. My shopping list was ready. I had full support of my friends for this escape to freedom. The same evening, I was in London. The bird had successfully broken the cage and flown away!
I was fascinated by the idea of an exploratory hitchhiking trip in Europe. On reaching UK I had to visit Anil and Kunda Nene in London, Rambhau Karandikar in Birmingham, Neville Crowther, my beloved mentor in Edinburgh. But other than them, I visited Sheffield to meet an old friend of mine, Mary. Mary Lancaster, maiden name Mary MacKenzie, whom I had met for the first time in ’83 in North Wales. During my course, my course mate Martin and I, went off to Llanberis for a rock-climbing trip during the Easter holidays. That time, Mary was living in a caravan with Bob Lancaster. She had completed the same course two years before. During the same week I got introduced to two of their friends Max Holliday and Roger Gook. Mary joined us on our climbing stint. That was a fun filled week. It was the ‘Karmabhoomi’ of great mountaineers like Joe Brown and Don Whillans. Climbing in North Wales introduced me to the real ‘British Rock Climbing’. After 1985 Bob and Mary got married and were living in Sheffield. I spent two days with them enjoying their hospitality. I met Max and Roger during the same time. They provided me with valuable guidance for my Europe trip. All of them were a bit worried with the thought of my coping up with the adventure. My plans were to visit UK before I headed back to India. As I started for my Europe trip Bob said, ‘When you come back, we want to talk to you!’ I nodded, but I was curious and eager to know what they had in mind for me.
My hitchhiking trip of six/seven weeks was wonderful. On my way back I was to pay a visit to Bob and Mary in Sheffield. I called them up before I started from London. 15 Spring Hill, Crookes, Sheffield. When I reached Mary’s house, Max and Roger were there too. I was surprised. All of us settled with our tea in the living room, Bob took the lead in talking to me. Idea was about a new venture! It was about taking British client groups for trekking in the Himalayas. This is called Adventure Tourism. I had quite a lot of experience of mountaineering in the Himalayas and since I had stayed in Scotland for a year, I was well versed with the culture, lifestyle and ways of the British. ‘Will you join us?’ was the invitation. Ah! Now I came to know the reason for all of them coming together. New education, raising and paying back the loan was all that I had accomplished and I was ready for the new chapter in my life. Future was quite hazy at that time. It was indeed an exciting opportunity. Mary and others were explaining me about the other aspects and details of the venture, which I was really unsure how much I grasped at that time! But this meant, explore Himalayas, not a job but as my own business and have all the spare time to pursue my hobbies along with a lot of time for myself! I was floating on a cloud! I had started dreaming of the entire venture. We had a daylong meeting. We decided to organize the first experimental trek the same year in September. Now came the exciting part, choosing a name for the venture. Numerous names came up. High Adventure, Treks Unlimited, Adventure Galore and the like. This was the beginning of a new challenging and an exciting chapter of my life. At last, all zeroed in on the name – ‘High Places’!