For those of you who follow me on twitter, you may know my grandmother passed away two weeks ago. I apologize if my quality of work falls a bit in this next month or two, because this is one death that will keep hitting me for a while. Soon to come is a post about her and the side of her I don't yet know all about: her world traveling side. The research begins this week. She was one cool lady.Read More
To seek out mental exhaustionTo be stranded with nothing but my mind To be shoved completely out of my bubble and to let the one that covers me burst into tears on occasion To see things I read about To have a more enlightened mind and know, from experience, things never to be forgotten To prove I can return alive
Traveling is tough, and those who travel don't always love the loner chapter of the book. At times I hear people say they follow my blog and love to read the stories, some like to think they are experiencing the adventures with me, and others wish they could come along the next time. Some, like my mom, are just proud I'm able to do such things but would never partake in the quests.
The solo traveler lifestyle is a bit of an acquired mindset and may only be at the mercy of one's innate nature. I used to request a seat away from my parents on a flight, stare out the window, eat my peanuts, and imagine what I would do if I were alone. A wild concept, to be without guardians or help, left to tap my own resources and make something happen; my first solo flight to Florida and connection dash across the Atlanta airport gave me a taste of the adrenaline that comes from fending for yourself when no one is around.
During my final Spring Break in college, instead of wearing wet shirts and dancing in strobe, I sat in my basement and schemed. I used a laptop to plot a personal journey around the world, taking the same eastward route of my previous voyage, to see if I could hack it independently. And when my travel agent asked for the dates of each onward flight, I took no arbitrary approach. I counted out the amount of days needed to see the sights, get a feel for things in that country or region…and then doubled it.
To seek out mental exhaustion; I wanted to curse myself for making a trip so lengthy and difficult. To be stranded with nothing but my mind; I anticipated epic novels billowing out of the journey's memories. To be shoved completely out of my bubble; utter vulnerability was the name of the game. Let the bubble that covers me burst into tears on occasion; even though I am an expressionist, I bottle up a lot. This bottle explodes under extreme pressure, like a bottle of Aqua-net in a bonfire. To see things I read about; I'd rather not leave some things up to the imagination. To have a more enlightened mind and know, from experience, things never to be forgotten; it's either my poor reading comprehension gene or my decision to imbibe, but I cannot seem to remember things, unless of course I experience it (Thank you, Confucius). Finally, to prove I can return alive; I wanted to get in touch with the original human purpose: survival.
I'm supposed to be describing Darjeeling, but why the lengthy digression on going solo? It has to do with the need to eat while traveling. It has to do with trying new cuisines and enjoying a leisurely meal in a good ambiance. It has to do with the look of pity across the restaurant, the confusion exhibited and exclusion maintained by other travelers who don't get the weird ones who go alone.
Darjeeling, being an eclectic mix of cultures and a secluded town in the hills, had a fantastic selection of places to break my trend of mediocre food consumption after the stomach woes. I ate fancy-pants grub at a tablecloth joint, had Thai food that hugged me from the inside, and slowly eased back into the difficult tastes of post-body battle Indian dishes. Not one meal ever exceeded $3. Since I became a hermit in the hills to enjoy the serenity of writing and non-hostel culture, I had met no one in town, besides the anxious hotel boys, and normally ate alone. It does not send me into an existential episode when I eat a meal in public by myself; I usually used the time to stare out a window and envision the next thing or read a page of my novel on a Bombay gangster.
As I took a forkful of rice or a gulp of Indian beer, I often saw the glance of pity that all single women hate. A little blonde British woman with a clean French braid, looking past her male travel comrade's head, trying to understand in a split-second why I am so undesirable. Usually, I am too focused or tired to notice, but spending the entire day in a hotel room can make one ultra-sensitive to interactions with humankind.
These moments of misunderstanding don't make me angry but cause me to be stable in myself, sorry for others, feel mysterious to onlookers, and be a keeper of unknowns. I wish I could share with some of these shifty eyes the joys of wandering aimlessly on my own accord, and seldom do I get the chance to do so effectively. Never was I sent away from an inn because they didn't have enough spots open for my whole group, nor did I have to settle for an undesirable location in a compromise with my travel clan. Instead, I settled with whispering to myself while taking a bite or turn a page in my book, "Pansies."
Eating in Darjeeling was not always a big display of my travel situation in seemingly unflattering terms, but at times, I felt downright gangster. People really wonder about your abilities to get around and your strong determination when you hold your own shield and saber, so to speak. Often, less harassment comes your way as a loner because people think you've got a lot more know-how or power than meets the eye. It's like steering clear of the runt or the mute one in a gang...no one wants to question the crazy stuff they did for respect in their world.
Speaking of gangster, my last meal in Darjeeling was the Asian version of a scene from Casino. Walking by a Bhutanese restaurant every day bred much intrigue in what the ambiance would be like and what foods would run down my trap. I hid my massive novel and notebook under my slicker and ran through the kind of rain that only happens when you live inside a cloud.
The seemingly tiny establishment doubled in size with an upper floor, separated into rooms with encircling booth seating and central tables. The walls had a dusty cover of memorabilia often replicated in the corporate chains of Applebee's and Buca di Beppo; the accumulation of real artifacts from the lives of those working in the building: portraits of kings from the Motherland, dated notices on the wall of restaurant policies and sweeping landscapes adorned with pristine monasteries. I sat in a big room by myself, placed my book on the table covered with kitchen linoleum, and gazed out the opened window surrounded by twinkle lights that provided all the lighting in the room. I browsed a menu I was unable to read and mimed for suggestions from the one careful man who waited on me with complete attention. His folding of my napkins in a jazzy manner was laudable and his water refill intervals worthy of a standing ovation. I was taken care of.
The rain dripped slowly. The water trickled down the mountainside in a sweet delivery of ambiance. It was mountaintop gangster.
BANG! POW! CRACK!
These are not the captions of a Marvel comic but the sounds that reverberated off the walls in my all-marble hotel. They were unexpected, oddly timed during the day, and seemingly arbitrary in the grand scheme of normal life in Darjeeling, India. I had no idea why the boys that worked in my hotel were setting off fireworks INSIDE the building where I slept.
And then I realized…Diwali; a Hindu holiday I had never heard of until July when my Italian hosts got me amped about being on location during a major celebration. The memory must have slipped by me, what with all the gastro-intestinal fireworks of the last week, and the only evidence of this special time of year was the spontaneous explosion during dinner that would send my hard-boiled egg sliding across the table.
There must be something in the water, or maybe it's the air at 8,000 feet, but the boys in Darjeeling who work in hotels are ever so special. Hotel New Vaisali was staffed by some pre-adolescent and full-grown teens who all expressed intrigue in my lone American quest. While reading or relaxing in my room, I would get knocks at the door by three or four anxious boys wanting to steep a nice pot of tea for me. I often took up their offers because: A. they found me to be an exotic species of human whose every move was worth watching, and B. I was in the process of documenting my African memories and felt drinking steaming tea and eating biscuits while writing instantly produced Pulitzers.
One day during my five night stay, I went nowhere and did absolutely nothing of note. I took a shower, watched TV, read my novel and wrote extensively. The boys came looking for me, worried/utterly riveted by my unusual habits. When I told them I was just resting and reading, you would have thought I said, "I'm on the phone with Mother Teresa, shaving the TV, and trying to slingshot a cookie at Kangchenjunga Mountain." I smiled at their confusion, closed the door with a wink, and let the intrigue beget a little more mystery. When you have a view of the world's third tallest mountain out your $15 per night hotel room, sometimes there's little reason to actually go outside. Plus, I was almost caught up with my sleep, my laundry, my book, and my journey notes. Cha-ching!
Every one of these Darjeeling boys, whether hotel worker, waiter, or bracelet maker, passionately possesses a belief in a common community denominator. Whether its exhibition is in the military hat atop their head, the simple sign on the shop window, or their participation in a demonstration that occurred outside my room window, they believe in their birthright of an independent nation called Gorkhaland. The original inhabitants of the West Bengali hills have made some bloody attempts in history to retake the land of the Nepali/Lepcha/Bhutia-blend people, but India, just as it does with its top hat of Kashmir, claims ownership. Not only were these boys universally hooked on romance but also on the impassioned game of politics there in the clouds.
The legendary hilltop train station, a rolling tea plantation, the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute; all things I wanted to experience before the calendar sent me running to Kolkata for a flight eastward. I hit three of the city's major points of interest in one afternoon by way of my Merrell trekker shoes. Most taxi drivers charge over $20 for transportation to these hot spots, but it seemed unnatural and akin to defacing a world wonder to ride in a car when you could instead witness every inch of this city on foot. I dodged overstuffed taxis and walked by kitchen windows wafting relatively unpleasant smells, which always seemed to make my stomach gurgle in hunger. An hour or more later, all I could see was tea.
Happy Valley Tea Company is an old establishment that sells their products to visitors at the factory or in wholesale only to the retail giant, Harrod's. The snaking path down into the plantation from the street was a good place to sprain an ankle from all the necessary rock-hopping. But I landed at the bottom to find a woman with two teeth and beautiful skin grinning at me. She worked for the tea pickers, ladies who have yet to be replaced by machines or even primitive shears of any kind. The woman spoke English in staccato but quite well and offered to give me a lesson on Darjeeling tea.
I was plucked like a lucky little leaf to be chosen into the tea workers rest house. Not everyone gets the pleasure of seeing this woman first, sometimes only after spending loads in the factory and learning little. She brought me in and gave me a test, one-on-one, to see if I knew good tea from swill. I think I got two out of three correct, and she proceeded to describe picking seasons, leaf quality, steeping instructions, and impress further with the big Kahona of the tea world, Flowery Golden Tippy Orange Pekoe One. This ultra-high grade tea sat next to me, bulging like bags of Sam's Club kitty litter. My tutor grabbed a handful out of the bag, dragged me into the adjacent room with rolling hot water on the stove, and threw the leaves in for a grand total of five seconds.
With America as the birthplace of Starbucks and, as a result, constantly wired, we aren't big on tea. After going to the Boh tea plantation in Malaysia last year, I grew to appreciate a good cup and began to prefer it against its harsh opponent. I still cannot distinguish the good from the marginally bad, but this tea, FGTOP1 as they call it, was superb. Colors seemed brighter, my cushion seemed more welcoming, and the two-toothed woman and I became a little more chummy. She told me her beauty secrets and how she was able to have the skin of a forty year-old when she was sixty. I was shocked to hear her age, but when I considered her forty year-old skin and ninety year-old teeth, it all seemed to average out.
I walked away from my new friend with two bags of high grade FGTOP1, and the best part was her supply came from the tea pickers' ration. The factory pays them dismally but supplements their salary with weekly amounts of the tea that causes their carpal tunnel. Instead, they sell what they receive to make monetary compensation and make this monotonous life of slowly scaling hillsides worth it.
Mountains? (long pause) Wabash, Indiana. (long pause) Yup.
I guess it makes sense why I like the craggy, snow-covered beasts of the world and maybe even more sense why I am intrigued by those who climb them. Meandering up a hill and past oodles of street-side restaurants, I emerged from the foothills to the gates of the Darjeeling Zoo and the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute. Tenzing Norgay presides over each day from his tomb above the Institute, and I went to give him a bit ofmy time. India's pride and joy, the second (according the Sir Edmund Hillary) person to summit Everest, is the celeb of the century in the West Bengali Hills as his 'hood was in the surrounding area. I snuck around the halls of the low-key museum and shivered at the thought of wearing the animal hides and tin cans they used in the early attempts at mountaineering. I searched for a tribute to the expedition with Jon Krakauer that inspired the book Into Thin Air in order to make myself feel somewhat "in the know," but alas, I saw none.
Even though I had numerous teachers in high school and college tell me I should pursue dance as a career, I knew I didn't have the build of a waif under this shell, nor the catty, competitive edge. And even though I am drawn to peaks like a moth to a very cold and dangerous light, I know I cannot pursue anything serious with mountaineering when my heart burns from lifting weights or running in place. Darn you, mitral-valve regurgitation and lousy cardio fitness, darn you to hell.
However, I think to a more subtle extent I am an adrenaline junkie. I go to unknown and risky places regardless of my hesitations. I embarrass myself or expose my most vulnerable thoughts because it's invigorating to be honest. And I like a steady climb below the tree level, when my hips feel as though they will dislodge, my scarf is icing over, and a blizzard is blowing past me on the right. I take on mini-mountains regularly in hopes all this effort will get me to a more informed self-realization. Because if I die without knowing the real me, my last moments will be the definition of depression. This is why I travel.
दार्जिलिंग इंडिया। अ मिड-लेवल मक्का।
Alice Villa and her crew kicked me out with a smile and a tear. My beloved guesthouse was overbooked, and my sorry load needed to relocate for the remainder of my mountain adventure. It was a bittersweet parting with an establishment that saved me from extreme bowel distress, gave me food and impeccable shelter, and created an inexplicable feeling of comfort and acceptance that sped up bodily recovery time and revitalized my withering appreciation for the Indian nation. The desk clerk and bellhops appeared regretful to see me toting my earthly possessions out of their gates, and I left without an idea as to where I would go next. I knew Darjeeling and I clicked. More wilderness trekking opportunities announced themselves around every corner of this town. And Sikkim, a.k.a. Shangri-La, was only a short, albeit treacherous, ride away. However, I couldn't ignore that I had finally tapped into something really rare here, in this nook of the world.
When experiencing the world in quantitative form, maximizing the number of locales and tight-wad tendencies but risking pinnacles of quality, seldom does one develop a connection with the people, the local mentality, or the offerings of the destination. My Lonely Planet runneth over with restaurant recommendations and beautiful ways to spend an afternoon. I saw few tourists, none of which represented the toxic species I hated from Varanasi, and the prospect of having another high altitude sunrise grace my retinas kept me lingering for more from the legendary hilltop station.
$15 was the new $2.50 in my spending habits for shelter. After such a satisfying three nights in a joint that merited even one star, I stuck with my new standards of living (e.g. not squalor) and searched for anything that had a personal bathroom, moments of warm water, a TV, and bedding. Hotel New Vaisali did the trick. To illustrate the ease of this search, I'll paint an experiential picture. Imagine all hotel options being within a three minute walk of each other and your favorite spots in town. Picture yourself staring at a sign for a few seconds, working on your Nepali translations, then being approached by a helpful man with a Gorkha hat atop his noggin. Pretend said helpful sir decides to inquire about your requirements and acts as translator/negotiator for each establishment you both enter. When attempt #3 is successful, you find yourself uttering, "Thank you, India. I take note of your incredible hospitality."
A comfy king size bed, a shower head, functioning cable TV and a wall length window with a view of the mountain range; these are a few of my favorite things. I broke a rule within the first five minutes and did some laundry inside my room, hanging the dripping clothes on the glass to billow in the thin, fresh breeze. Performing this act at home is a monotonous chore that requires no elbow grease. However, on the road, I was someone who wore clothes until they rotted off the body and needed to be quarantined inside a backpack; any chance to launder my wardrobe relieved numerous troubles and tripled my daily clothing choices, amounting to three options. Using my shampoo to generate lather for not only my hair and body but the clothing still hanging from my frame made shower time not so relaxing, but, boy, was I gettin' everything clean! And I'd probably round the number up to 750 for the amount of people around the world who have seen my undies flapping in the wind outside out of my various domiciles.
Only in Darjeeling… …do boys carry two different love letters in their back pockets…one in Nepali and another in English. …does the train get caught in a traffic jam. …do you walk through the town once and meet the same people ten times. …can you jump off the train, take a leak, and catch the train again. …do people sit in the fog and watch an entire soccer match, without knowing what the hell is going on on the field. …do the unemployed dress better than the employed. …do you find distances in kilometers and places in miles.
I found the following adorable list on my menu at a bakery in town. This wasn't a spot on the typical Lonely Planet trail, but it had a menu in English with humor to delight the foreign masses. I read the long list and smiled, pulling out my notebook to copy the most location-specific and oh-so true phrases. Writing them down brought flashbacks of all the hopeless romantic boys that work in Alice Villa and New Vaisali, the ridiculous train track that braids itself with the road on the route up to Darjeeling, the little boy on the observation deck that would sneak up on me multiple times a day to scare me and make the local elderly laugh at me, and the road signs in kilometers I desperately searched for when my body was in deep digestive distress on the ride up. Darjeeling and I seemed to grow more and more alike, our interests unmistakably tied with a humorous string.
Alain de Botton, in his book The Art of Travel, covers a vast array of topics not commonly discussed in guidebooks or Samantha Brown specials, topics which speak straight to the one half of my soul that is eternally nomadic. One of his chapters brings up the connections between people and their beloved destinations, those places that bring people to life even though they may be thousands of miles from their home soil. De Botton develops on the idea that there are inexplicable reasons why I love the city of Florence, why Anthony Bourdain is at times persuaded to move to Indonesia, and why the world's travelers feel compelled to hit certain places over and over again. I was born in Wabash, Indiana, and though my childhood friends are the coolest people on the planet and my other half is all about small town values, my birthplace does not satiate my soul.
I don't know if this idea falls under the jurisdiction of reincarnation or the mystical, but I think people don’t just have "soul mates" but soul cities. This relationship cannot be determined by how good of a time one has at a destination. I met some fantastic people in Delhi, but that crap hole and I are not an item. I enjoyed some fantastic wine and thermal bath sessions in Hungary, but I, for some reason, loathed that place. Florence, Italy and I have had a multi-faceted history, one filled with complete immersion and dreams becoming occurrences but also rejection and sorrowful, emotional pain. I don't know if it's the colors, the landscape, the smells, her age and past, the art, the possibilities, the wine, the gastro-pleasures, or the fact that I know her secret gems. All I know is she has a spirit that I can see, feel, taste, and sense even when my eyes are closed in sleep.
After this trip, I realized that I cannot be exclusive with the cities I court. Florence and I aren't meant to be legally bound. On this big journey, I got around, saw a few different cities, and realized my soul connected with many places for different reasons. Along with Florence, Jinja, Zanzibar, Krakow, and to some extent Srinagar, Darjeeling and I fit. It's the sense that these cities or islands WANT me to be there, and even if there are massive problems, physical hardships, or money issues, I know something is right in our close physical proximity. I knew this as I sat once again on the observation deck for Kangchenjunga, delighting in the sensory overload that coated my consciousness.
Prayer flags and drying clothes flapping on lines Palm trees and cedars intertwining their phalanges The smell of wax, trash bonfires, dirty cement, incense and body soil All mixed with sweet mountain air.
This place wasn't a bucket of fries, it was a stew. It had to simmer in the bowl of my mind and get better with each hour and each bubble of thought. I planned to satiate another sense the next day and follow the need for a hot cup of honest tea.
COFFEE COFFEE COFFEE COFFEE COFFEE COFFEE COFFEE
Smile and decline.
COFFEE COFFEE COFFEE COFFEE COFFEE COFFEE CHAAAAAAAI
I wasn't tired. Yes, I woke up at 3:30am and ran through the echoing city of Darjeeling in the bare cold of her film noir-esque pre-dawn. Yes, I jumped in a stranger's jeep, gave him two dollars, and squashed against four other foreigners on a bumpy half hour ride. And at 8,500 feet, it is true that the wind and the chill on Tiger Hill are hard to endure without a blanket, an adequate jacket, or a warm body to lean against. However, anticipation is a more effective stimulant than anything that can be brewed or smuggled in a dirty balloon. I declined the back-to-back offers for a drink and waited, shivering. The horizon was turning blood red, and I could faintly see her lines in the distance.
At this height, we were face to face, Kangchenjunga and I. The sky was nearly opaque, but the jags marking her presence cut through the miles between. Cameras were poised at the sunrise and bodies huddled against a steel barrier looking eastward. I didn't get that. I have seen the world turn slowly towards the luminous star countless times before. It's beautiful, until the bright ball emerges and burrows into your retinas. I stood alone to the west. I was waiting for the big climax. I was waiting for nature's most incredible billboard of light and color.
On one side of Tiger Hill, a layer cake of slate blue, cream-sicle orange and crimson changed the sky, casting a subtle glow on the floating castle to the west. Below this spectacle, the foothills wore the blanket of night's darkness. Bhutan was just seeing its sunrise, and, now, so were the peaks of Nepal, the sun skipping over Darjeeling and all of the West Bengali hills until a more reasonable hour.
The mist caught the ambient light and illuminated the edges of each tea plantation and rolling bubble of land. The air below looked wet and heavy, slowly becoming the color of a glacial lake. Prayer flags flapped their silhouettes against a mystical backdrop. Suddenly, the world was pastel and wearing a tiara. I whispered.
It's not easy to upstage Kangchenjunga from this vista, but Everest made a stab at it. I could see her from behind the curtain of haze in the twilight's glow. I saw the Earth's crown from 107 miles away. She hid between two other 8000+ meter beasts and winked at me as if to lean around the curtain and say, "Get ready for my big entrance."
Meanwhile, the tiara alit as if the snow caught fire and burned from head to toe. It was an orange I've only witnessed on buildings during Italian sunsets in summertime. Nothing else mattered in the world, an impressive beauty that occurs every day over the grime of human existence. We gasped and held our breath until the tingles subsided, fingers poised over the shutter. The summit and its radiating edges looked jagged and razor sharp, as if the sky or the wind would suddenly snag and bleed from a cosmic gash.
Two minutes after the mountain fire, Planet Earth had its ultimate daily idea. Its principal light bulb turned on as steadily as a wave's advance. Somewhere, in the middle of Nepal, Everest grabbed sunlight an hour before her foothills would know night was over. It was a sight capable of buckling knees. I propped myself against a jeep and called home. They were all in a movie theater, enjoying a Heartland Film Festival specialty, and messaged they would call me later. What does one do after beholding their dream sight? Stare in disbelief and laugh at modern-day advances in global communication; that's what.
Still vibrating, I returned to Darjeeling and climbed the hill to Alice Villa Guesthouse. The stray dogs were sleeping across main square in any patch of light that warmed the cement. Arriving back to my room, I crawled into the bed, opened my novel, and savored the last of my Tibetan dumplings from the night before. Occasionally, I let out a "Ha!" upon every flashback to the morning's thrill. In the fall of 2007, I read my first book on these mountains and made the initial steps of my pilgrimage. Approximately one year later, I reached fulfillment.
The developed world spends so much time pitying the lifestyles of those on the other side, which makes ignoring these realities more possible. However, I will forever applaud any man, woman, or child who has enabled themselves to start every morning like this, with a sunrise so majestic it blurs the line between reality and ultimate fantasy. A view like that just doesn't seem real. Actually, it's completely ludicrous that I am from a place that appears eternally colored by the gray scale. My old concept of a great landscape was a luscious Indiana field of corn without a massive power line going through it. This is why I told my travel agent to send me to northern India. I needed to see nature exhibit her "Best in Show."
I wrote these thoughts while on the "road"..."A nervous dog pacing for a good, sunny, uncrowded spot to bathe and relax A little boy snorting and scaring girls (including me) to impress his buddy between swings on the monkey bars Old women with elephant wrinkles thumbing 109 prayer beads"
This "road" could have be anywhere. And then... "School boys and older men standing right in my sightline of the 8000m high mountains, staring hard back at me or posing with nonchalance Faces beam, evident of an eclectic mix, where the South, East, and Southeast become a passionate blend The world's chimneys billow the breath of the skies"
I was in a fascinating nook of the world, a nook I used to dream about being tucked into. And then I got there…the West Bengali Hills of India.
The Way back to Enlightening Elevations It took a sixteen hour train ride, filled with traveling bands, beggars, and more chai salesmen than one could shake a stick at, until I felt a cool breeze once more. Befriending the Germans below my sleeper bed gave me an always-appreciated price cut on the $1 rickshaw ride from New Jaipalguri station to the Siliguri bus terminal, and knowing far too well the antics of the transportation biz in India, I anticipated and enjoyed a small fight with our driver, who claimed sudden inflation by the time we reached our destination.
It was a battle fought with smiles and a constant handshake, and the Germans watched patiently. I saw the driver rack his brain quickly for a way to get more money from our pockets, and an audience began to form, though they were relatively uninterested with this common scammer occurrence. A tip to those who encounter this situation with annoyance: write the agreed price on your hand in front of the driver and proceed to strike a creepy pose towards him or her, smiling for the entire ride until he caves in hopelessness, knowing you are a rupee-pincher 'til you D.I.E.
If I feel anything towards policemen in my own country, it's fear, even when I'm not doing anything wrong. Must be a Pavlovian dog response from years of conditioning. However, in any other country, it seems police are hired to just stand on street corners and chew unknown substances along with the "every man," except the "every man" doesn't carry a big stick. I use these statuesque resources for help around town, though they are almost always the ones who cannot speak English. There's always that lingering obligation, though, that causes these civil servants to help you, and this is how I was introduced to two travelers in desperate need of a ride to Darjeeling.
All buses had stopped service, no trains could rise into the mountains, and all jeeps were seemingly hired. Down the road, we saw a sign for the last ride of the day, jumped into a Jeep after about seven seconds of thought, paid $2, and settled our minds and bags into the already packed vehicle. Enter two or three more bodies and a second driver hanging onto the spare tire rack in the rear, and we're off. The driver stopped the Jeep to place some kind of sailor hat on his head and then booked it up the switchbacks into the Himalayas. It was such flavor for a simple three hour car ride. This is how it always is in India.
With a Chinese man sitting on my left leg, an Israeli's knees pressed against mine making sweat sandwiches, a greasy head laying on my right elbow, and a backpack compacting my stomach, I could do nothing but submit to my discomfort. Not only was I in a clown car, rising in altitude, and bumping from pothole to crumbling pothole, I hadn't gone to the bathroom in 26 hours. I didn't trust anyone with my bags in the sleeper car, nor did I want to experience the sum of the food poisoning + rocking Indian train equation. My body was not amused, and it slowly began to drain me of all vivacity and life to the point of being an empty shell by the time we hit Darjeeling.
For the first time, I wasn't bombarded, or even approached, when I walked around the town. It was dark, shops were still ablaze and selling assorted wares, and I wandered nearly unconscious by my distressed bowels. I stood outside a parked taxi and stared at the relaxing driver like a beaten puppy, hoping he would give me quick and easy directions to a hotel I heard of but hadn't booked ahead. He insisted on taking me at a ridiculous price ($2.50), refused to cave because I wore my vulnerability on my sweaty sleeve, and I flopped into the vehicle in resignation.
It was as if a friend or family member from home popped out from around a corner and came running to me, embracing my weary soul in a monster hug. Alice Villa Guesthouse opened their gates to my taxi, and the head boy in a bellhop's uniform took me in with a smile to the front desk. Every employee at this establishment treated me with the utmost care and concern, showed me a luxurious room with two beds, a fireplace, a personal bathroom, and cable television, and walked me into town to make sure I knew where to get a good meal. This hotel experience surpassed virtually every other one I had on the entire journey (minus the Kashmiri houseboat), and it all ran me a total of $15 a night.
"So you are traveling alone?" "Yes." "No one is with you or meeting you?" "No." "What are you going to do here?" "Hang out." "You really are alone?" "Unless I'm being followed." "And you're American…" "Indeed."
I can imagine what it's like to be a celebrity, or notorious, or a notorious celebrity. Being a spectacle for just being oneself can be amusing or quite unsettling. Who ever heard of a typical Midwestern American girl being considered "exotic?"
After bringing a close to my bathroom record, completely unpacking my smelly bag, grabbing a noodle meal to eat in bed with my hands, and watching numerous episodes of Seinfeld and Friends, I passed out in between some clean padding and a blanket. Simple pleasures.
The following morning I emerged slowly to shiver in the new air and see what the mountains looked like. The blank canvas of sky the night before gave me no smidgeon of an idea as to how gargantuan the landscape was, and I could only get a sneak peek by viewing the photographs adorning the guesthouse walls.
The first step outdoors brought me fresh air, with a hint of trash and incense, and a view of the tea hills. They undulated like a heart beat or the bathwater from a rowdy tub session, and the green kiss of chlorophyll in my eyes made me feel natural again. I crawled up a hill to the main square and found the fork in the road that leads to the town's best observation deck. Strings of prayer flags decorated or replaced power lines. Stray dogs walked past me as if they were running errands and checking off their "to do" lists. The road was seemingly endless as it snaked around the tip of Darjeeling, until I saw some benches and a turn ahead. The Himalayas appeared.
I thought they were clouds billowing and blowing across the hills. But these clouds were too pointy and shaded to be clouds; these were rocks. There was such a gap between the feet of the range and the snowcapped beasts themselves. Just looking at the mountains from hundreds of miles away, I could hear the winds at the summits, imagine the bite in the air and the number that could be done to my lips and fingers.
The observation decks were littered with more stray dogs, all looking almost pet-able and serene, and I looked at them, looked at the mountains in the background, and wondered if they sensed any inspiration from their daily majestic sights. It certai nly seemed as though the local inhabitants appreciated these visual luxuries, kids coming straight from school to the outlooks to chat or older couples enjoying an afternoon with sun on their backs and amazement in their pupils. I tried to blend in, but a little boy pestered me every time I looked away from him, sneaking up behind me to poke my sides, making startling sounds. I would scream like Lucille Ball, laugh in awe, and look around to see that everybody around was grinning, too. Innocent harassment felt like a big community handshake. Being picked on made me feel welcome.
"Altering my geographic placement upon which to reflect The audacity of the gesture and the potential for more as the main thrill and focus Making that presence truly felt by interacting and letting my personality subtly mark someone from that place Leaving an unconscious and feather mark legacy that seems greater and more romantic than a momentary dent and an activity list It's enough to mark a pin on a map or put it at the bottom of a running list Since I'm young and think I've got abundance in the future, I take it all in as a global pupu platter But this could also be it, and I could only know the skin at most, but I do know the fuzzy, ugly, stale, comforting, brown, flat, giggling realities of a small town that feeds the material of my most frequent dreams"
These are the sorts of thoughts that flow from a mind high on the Himalayas. I was tingling at my proximity to such grandeur and slapping myself for having this desire to see them. I couldn’t tell whether such a thirst came from soul searching depths or just the need to do something laudable and not have to fight anymore for a legitimate voice. My traveling mind always conflicted, it was impossible to ever feel pure emotions. Some day, I sincerely hope I acquire that ability once more.
After peeling my eyes away from the craggy range and getting harassed again by the comedic little boy, I just started walking. I followed every snaking road lined with street markets, tea shops, and Indian-style convenience stores. The grade of the roads varied from semi-flat to 45 degree angles. Thank you, Merrell Sports Shoes, for your adequate development of sole traction. It felt so wonderful to wear a scarf and a fleece, comfortable shoes and socks, layers and jeans, and not sweat profusely or accumulate visible, tangible filth on my legs and toes.
At the bottom of one hill, I found myself in a small neighborhood and amongst tens of school girls playing games like "Ring around the Rosy." My vision was cut slim by the surrounding buildings to only see an extreme vertical image of children under towering homes clinging to a hillside. I almost ran through their human tunnel, clapping and giggling all the way, but the sight was too perfect to disturb. It took me back to the days when the idea of "playing" gave me the six-cups-of-coffee jitters and my partners-in-crime were all I needed to be happy, back when I wasn't ruled by insatiable desires and nonsensical world missions. They looked at me once, I smiled, and then we all continued on with our days, I ascending the hill again and they sending the next girl through the tunnel of hands.
Branching off the main square at the top of Darjeeling was a road designated for foot traffic and booth browsing. Shops selling winter accessories, Kashmiri goods, and anything tourists or locals could ever need were abundant. A puppy the size of a lemon slept without bother next to 90 year-old saleswomen and her wares. The universal mission in this community to be content was palpable. After six months on the road, the only take-home items I purchased were a Masai bracelet and a few clothing items. It seemed as perfect a time as any to do a little shopping. Withholding until India gave me thrilling backpack space to work with, so I walked into the only shop that appeared remotely unique and just stood still inside.
The owners smiled and stared in anticipation of a big sale, but I remained rather motionless, my eyes scanning the big paintings of mountainous landscapes around the room. The "fixed price" sign drained a little fun out of the moment, but instead I let the right piece yodel down to me, asking me to take it home. As a Californian hippie in Brazil, a.k.a. the "Vege-Nazi," once told me, "If something calls to you, just buy it. If it doesn't, move on." One large painting worked its magic on me, and I walked away smiling, envisioning the blank wall in my future abode the painting just filled.
One very early and quite frigid morning in China, I experienced the delight of real Tibetan dumplings, the chewy yet crisp sensations almost as comforting as the salty, homemade quality of the flavors. It was one of the best meals I can ever remember having, and the ambiance of sitting on a deck overlooking an historically preserved Southern China town with my best friend pumped the moment up to perfection. This lingering memory of great veggie-filled dough balls led my nose to a place with "Tibet" on the window and one woman by a stove.
Steam from a vegetable broth condensating on my face. Perfect noodles splashing trickles on top of my nose and around my cheeks. Hand-crafted lumps soaking up soy sauce and spices, layering the dumplings' flavors with extreme contrasts. I scanned my Lonely Planet for the next best thing to do, but all I wanted was to have this meal again and again. Soul food for the feeble and relaxed.
Darjeeling, in one day, had become a place where I could talk to no one and feel I was amongst friends. I still felt completely independent, but I was lifted up by a community that wanted me to be there. With a pair of fingerless gloves and a notepad, this is the perfect town to be a writer.
I stayed for a week.
No blood was shed. The curfew worked. We strapped the chickens on board and waded in fresh puddles to the jeep. Over my dynamite Kashmiri bread breakfast earlier, I felt the boat sway and new voices bounce off the water. Mohamed crawled out of the flashy water taxi, the Parisian movie director a new arrival and "victim" of the Delhi boys' persuasive tongues, and packed in for the six day trek upon landing. There was a sweeping majority of Muslim men on this mountain adventure, and I guess it says scores about their abilities to welcome and comfort me that I didn't realize I was going alone into the mountain range that borders Pakistan with six men of Allah. Fayaz always kept me in the loop and half-amused/half-annoyed me with his insistence on yelling into the cell phone. Mountain coverage is just fine. Riyaz, the well-groomed cook with a powerful face, docile and steady, seemingly unfazed by high altitudes or the two vertical mile starter trek, which could be attributed to his many years of experience…or the ten daily hashish cigarettes he rolled like a well-practiced Rasta.
The three pony men, or gypsies, were 20 something mountain men named Niyaz, Riyaz, and Umar, and I think it was their interest in my uncustomary Western female ways, in conjunction with my dependence on their optimism and humor (which usually ridiculed Fayaz' uptight guiding techniques), that made us unspoken, uncommunicative friends. These simple men appeared a little rough, evidence of their lives of living just sustainably enough in the hills of India: making their own bread, using their cows and chickens for their kitchen basics, knowing nothing but cold and substandard comfort.
Throughout the trek, Mohamed and I had to insist with red face and exhausted lung that the gypsies take a comfortable seat, use blankets and dry ground to avoid freezing mountain temperatures, eat along with us, relax after the emotional exhaust of killing a chicken…the list obviously goes on forever, because Kashmiri gypsies know no end to the hassle and necessary work involved in their lives. Understandably, the 20 year-old had the makings of crow's feet and a grumble of a 30 year smoker. It's hard to accept that these overworked men and women live very far past the age of 60, but two of the men (brothers) claimed their father was 92 and still kickin'…and smokin'.
Anyway, the trek all began with a night in Naranaj, but to those of you who learn nothing from that name, I'll paint a wordy little picture. The town appeared clinging to a single highway that cut into the lower hills of the mountains. The further we swerved around the blind, unprotected, crumbling bends, the deeper we seemed to set into a valley that resonated with running river water. The walls of this, nature's gutter (only in the functional sense), were tilted beyond 45 degrees, and the effect of turning towards the towering angle causes one to lose hold of depth and reality.
As the ponies were packed up on the periphery of the town, Mohamed surprised me with an intimate sweet talking session directed towards a dog that wandered near us. Strangled slightly by a rough rope, strips of old rice bags, and a wire suspended from the makeshift collar that poked the pup from underneath, the dog charmed us if not for his sweet nature than just the fact that an Indian dog wasn't mangy and evil. She clung to our sides and claimed guard dog duties by her sustained presence; she nearly tripped me by weaving in between my legs in order to stay close.
Past the community's permanent stronghold popped up a string of tent clumps along the river, where we saw the final gypsy grazing camps before they all retreated from the impending cold. We tracked the river's stream for a half hour and sent the encouraging clicks and hoots for the ponies' progress reverberating off the valley's bowl-like acoustics. We unstrapped the loads and claimed some river bank space for our tents to rise and ponies to mow, cuing the skies to sprinkle and spit during Camp 1 high tea. Boulders thrice as wide as my grandest hug guarded our settlement from the mountain run-off but, more importantly, set up an elaborate jungle gym for our young spirits and desires to toy with danger. From these perches, Fayaz, Mohamed, and I sent our hungry eyes and a baited line into the river pools and caught two rainbow trout to fry up in the kitchen tent.
We chomped on hot food that night, long after the sun abandoned the valley, and employed our hands to rip into the meal like only gypsies and their imitators know how. And with after dinner chais and a casual question about favorite movies, Mohamed caught a fire in his eyes, and I watched as his passion for the "talkies" lit up the air of a still night in the wilderness.
In the seclusion of my own tent with a "winter husband" hot water bottle cradled in my feet, I went to bed certain of a pleasant sleep, feeling the mass of our watch dog pressed inches from my head outside the tent. Even through ear plugs, I heard the midnight growls and even thumps of a brawl occurring on the ground where my bodyguard formerly snuggled. I think there were times that night we all reclined simultaneously wide eyed and white-knuckled.
Because of repeated delaying factors thus far, we were a bit behind schedule on our trek to the skies. Fayaz remedied the dilemma by pushing the day one hike to encompass the entirety of the trek's hurdles into seven burning hours. The burning refers not to the sun but everything else: our legs, lungs, blisters, joints, the wind and snow on our skin, and then the unsettling chill of feeling our sweaty clothes freeze the back during a water break. There's no way I would have tackled this experienced unsupervised, but I certainly prefer to set my own pace that involves frequent stops to worship the peaks that come out of hiding with every vertical step. I also set no records for high altitude hiking, so I tried to grin and bear all the moments when the men ran in front of me then stopped to wait and watch my steady struggle. Anytime I pulled the Nikon from around my shoulder to click a mountain goat's billowing hair or fresh snow on a Himalaya, I couldn't tell whether the fellas were stretching their shins or tapping their toes. We flew through clouds of pine scents and past paths that gripped the hillside in fear, trickling with mountain sweat. All I wanted to do was let the jaw-dropping sights be feet-stopping and enjoy the views I paid for. The pony men began to sympathize with me and muttered breaths to Fayaz's lunacy. I refused to let such a thing annoy me and listened only to the waterfalls as applause in my ears.
I liked walking with the ponies and letting them set a pace through the muddy paths. Sometimes their hooves would misjudge a stone or pile of sludge, and a ponyman shot forward to help heave the scrambling horse from tumbling downhill. One of these times, I was stuck between a struggling pony and gravity's arm. It's funny; after this big journey and all its thrilling moments, I now know I react to the instant of possible death with a blank mind and eyes the size of swimming goggles. So much for that last second survival and rescue instinct.
The entire day was a crawl through diverse terrain and gradually worsening climates. The first scene was a steady, uphill zig-zag covering a hilly face slanted at 45 degrees to the horizon. The breeze was harmonious with the warmth of the tropical sun through the canopy. Our lunch break arrived upon reaching an idyllic, tree-lined plain, large enough for pony rebellions and wide-stretching views of new snow and secluded, unmatched power. We ate previously cooked rice curry after devouring apples the size of cherry tomatoes. Pulling them out of Mohamed's backpack with chilled fingers, one went rogue and rolled down to the bottom of the clearing. Their tastes met a tired body's hunger with a natural invigoration that sent me chasing the doomed fruit to its resting place upon pony crap. I wiped it with my sweat-drenched scarf and ate it, core and all.
Fayaz' pupils were clock faces, and he refused our requests to relax and lick our yellowed fingers. The ponies and dependant humans wound around the mountain on a path that ran, thankfully, more horizontally and squeezed into the rock's armpits. From afar I'm sure the route looked like a heart monitor pulse. The air acquired a nip and force as ominous as distant thunders.
And then the constant tree covering dwindled to patches in the distance leaving green hills, the rocky earth breaking through the carpet like stars on an undisturbed night, and old gypsy settlements from the long past summer months. A fog so arresting transformed the scene into a twilight zone or a movie set for some haunted troll colony. Minute beads of snow began to slowly coat the world.
Just like the Milky Way's streak across the black dome, the land was striped with boulder gardens that crumbled down from the peaks unseen. While the ponies panted with light feet and angered whinnies and the gypsies bounded weightlessly across the rocky streams in penny loafers, I traversed the ankle graveyards with such steady footing, I could have been stepping around spitting snakes and sleeping babies. I saw the moss and the light dew and ruled out the possibility of playful bounding with images in my head of broken feet and being flung over a gypsy's shoulder down the two miles I had just climbed skywards. The mountain started whimpering from somewhere.
We had reached Tronakun and the tree line that introduces the arctic world above. Behind a gray cloud to the left was a peak, Haimuk Mountain, and an illusion of closeness and smallness that only came about because I really knew it was the biggest thing I'd ever seen so nearby. But then I turned to my right and saw the hills curve downward out of sight. A kilometer away into the air between vertical lands blew a thick snowstorm that stopped me as would an oncoming stampede or tsunami. It was stunning. Neighbor mountains pushed through the white enough for me to see the company I was surrounded by, the most beautiful and ferocious beasts. The men were already cresting the hill in front of me and insisted I not stop moving or I'd get stuck in a cold trap. Things, people, and sights can move you to cry, but this non-replicable display, this one time vista stopped my heart. I shifted my weight, wrapped my snow-crusted scarf around my entire head, and shook in disbelief of what I was now forced to abandon for the rest of the walk to the camp site.
My pants were wet, my SLR frozen and flapping at my back, and each step brought me closer to the men and a possible hip dislocation. I didn't realize it during the trek there, but our stopping point for the night was directly behind the hidden Haimuk Mountain we'd seen across the plain earlier. The thin path's hurdles grew subsequently more monstrous until I found myself balancing on the rim of an Earth bowl against sideways snow. Water gurgled in the pit below, hundreds of meters down its untouched slopes. I froze up there at 16,000 feet high in the snowy Gandarbal range, wearing only a long sleeved tee, my fleece, jeans, and a Kashmiri scarf.
Riyaz, the "ever-enlightened" cook, lingered from the group to give me a trekking companion and someone to follow without contemplating each step, path, or rocky outcropping. My body began to conserve its energies to keep me warm and coherent instead of soaking in the scenery. When I lifted my head after crossing a fallen tree bridge and another rock playground, I saw the trek was finished. We were at the edge of a small lake that kissed the feet of Haimuk. She stood over us like a 20,000 ft tall shrine or monument to the Earth's accomplishments in beauty. I let out a gasp of awe before I was crippled by weak hips, unmovable fingers, and an inability to do anything besides layer on clothes until I ran out. The process took a half hour to become impermeable, and for the only time on this trek, I had no problem that the men didn't let me help with establishing our home base.
One tent erected in the expansive valley, and the ponies ran to the nearest nibbles of frozen greens. We were a speck amidst the white blanket that swept over us. Looking past Umar in the tent flap opening, it looked like a plain backdrop for a GAP commercial. Unable and unwelcome to assist in any way, I sat watching Mohamed fade from cold and angry to relieved and chatty as his fingers regained nerve cooperation.
We both were wearing wet clothes under thick coats that didn't make us any warmer, so I suggested using the tent as a changing room and having the others evacuate while one person gets dry, warm, and situated. I ended up being the only one willing to expose bare skin to bitter cold in an attempt to get warmer, but when non of the men waiting outside told the approaching Umar about my costume change, a very shocked, shy, and embarrassed Muslim man dove away from my sight with his freshly killed chicken dangling limp in his bloody hand.
The first time I left our mountain shelter was to achieve primal relief behind a distant rock closer to the water's edge. The storm and all adjacent clouds had long passed and left a spotless sky made even more clear by the paper thin air. I had asked about possible wildlife in the area, which were improbable presences, but I kept my African tradition of drumming my hands on my thighs to scare away any animals I could sneak up on in attempt to relieve myself.
Instead, what shook me to honest fear and submission was Haimuk, hovering over me like a half pipe wave about to crest over my head. The same way I used to think ghosts chased me up the stairs or stained-glass faces in my old house haunted me in my nightly pursuits, I was sure the looming mountain would tremble, lean towards me, and terrorize just because it would be too easy. I never took my eyes off her. The lake was her mirror. The moon illuminated her deadly outline. And this was where I took my pre-bedtime pit stop…a loo with a view.
It's proved true in every occurrence of this journey that when my body needs a night of dreamless, morgue-like slumber, I cannot manage more than an hour before lying awake, eyes wide shut. I was packed in next to my frozen backpack and Mohamed's shifting frame. Umar's body, curled desperately onto the last few inches of tarp and blankets, made it impossible to fully extend my legs without using him as an ottoman. So I rolled onto my stomach and lifted everything below the knee into the air. A light breeze outside covered the utter darkness of sound, and opening my eyelids made no difference in what I could see. I had packed myself in so tightly for slumber that every shift and reposition made me feel like I was in a Chinese finger trap. My sore hips ached as they pressed into the frozen, divot-riddled ground. Starting from 4,000 ft and scaling the 12,000 ft to base camp had no effect on my breathing or dizziness, but while buried in blankets and trying to stay warm, I had breathing fits where I couldn’t get enough oxygen and lifted my head, panting like I just swam across the lake outside. And to make matters more agitating, my sleeping pill didn't let me snooze but just kept me fully aware of how tired I really was. As it frequently plays out, I realized I was finally asleep when the rest of the men stirred awake for the second day on the mountain.
By the time the sun had exposed her entire plump shape over the eastern mountain range and created a blinding landscape, the other two gypsies, Riyaz and Niyaz, returned with the ponies from Tronakun, where they had descended the night before in search of grass and warmth for their most prized living possessions.
Cold gypsy Kashmiri bread and cups of tea later, Fayaz sent us up the nearby ridge in search of Gandarbal lake number two, a more glorious sight and prime location for fishing. My hips wanted to refuse the twenty minute trek, but two of the gypsies promised me a memorable and pleasant time, our friendships having blossomed through shared high altitude agony. And it was a tremendous sight. The water's surface resembled more a clean glass window than a rippled lake appearance. I could count the pebbles on the shallow bed and see the details in their ridges.
Fayaz caught good sized trouts with ease and a top notch French-made fishing rod. Meanwhile, the mountain men waded knee deep into the glacial runoff and grabbed the fish in their leathery hands. On the spot, the men cracked the fish' jaws and gutted their bellies to throw into a bloody plastic bag, not before squirting orange fish eggs from the ladies into the crystal waters. Some didn't die until the process had long since commenced. With those same hands, they pulled out two glasses and a Thermos of chai for Mohamed and I, as if our breakfast a half hour before had already vaporized in our stomachs.
Clicking some pics and moving back down to our lake, Fayaz passed the line to me and let me cast the hook into the dark, cold waters at the foot of Haimuk peak. I wrangled nothing, but when he pulled out a flailing trout a minute later, I slowly wrapped my fingers around the slippery muscle for the first time in fifteen years. Until it left my hands, I smiled and exclaimed the trademark sound of Lucille Ball: UUUUEEEEWWWWWWW!
We were lucky to make it to the Gandarbal lakes when we did; many other trekking groups refused the risk and only day-tripped it to the exhausting height. Fearing our luck would soon run dry, Fayaz sent us back down the mountain, the day after we climbed its entire elevation. Not wanting me to fall behind and do my own thing again, Fayaz strapped me up to an annoyed pony and led me out of the valley. It was at this point that I decided to stop fighting the "special" treatment and demeaning demands to drop my dignity for the sake of sanity. They pushed me to accept the role of a helpless lady from the trek's conception, and I took that part when I understood it wasn't an option so much as an insistence. So, I rode a pony off the mountain.
From my perch, I could fully appreciate the reality of the mountain's appearances. At some point in time, the Earth's crust collided and froze at the climax of the action, creating a militant formation of protected terrain. Each ridge stood like a soldier, standing there to make it harder on human kind to reach its deepest and most remote Shangri-Las. Writers and travelers wish to be lodged in these unimaginable crevices between rocky waves, but the fact is only a few have the ability to reach them and, because of this, their virginal value remains a bit longer until time finds a way to rape them of such virtue.
My pony's hesitant tap dance across the frequent rocky streams made me nervous and imagine our shared deaths in various scenarios. Barrel rolls down the hillsides, laterally and head first, smashing bones against boulders, my all-too colorful imagination powered on.
The end of this much shorter trek brought us to what can only perfectly represent a grassy knoll. All three tents rose in the rain, and I ran to grab our ground blankets to keep them dry under a staggering tent. The boys rummaged for firewood and ended up building a fire dome made of wet bark that sent opaque clouds of smoke into the pine trees. I was in need of a cold weather exorcism and stuck my feet in the fire's blue belly, while sitting on my winter husband water bottle.
I found myself later in the kitchen tent reading my book "Three Cups of Tea" while Riyaz cooked up a fishy, chickeny, veggie-filled storm. The hero of my real life tale was working to erect school buildings in the Karakorum villages directly north of us. On this trip, I've often wondered how local people truly reflect on efforts made by foreigners of a charitable manner. Some have said its funny (though also greatly appreciated) that people spend their time and money on service projects, while others are unwelcoming to those insistent on pressing religious superiority. I decided to do further research and explain my book to the cook.
After a labored translation, he told me he found acts like that of Greg Mortenson and his schools among the top most laudable efforts one could perform in needing societies. I briefly considered whether it was my turn to follow suit for the village of Naranaj, since some boys like Niyaz fail to receive even the simplest of educations. Foreign aid, done the right way for the most honorable reasons, is truly appreciated. However, it has never been my life's intention to search for suffering people who need me because I am an angel of peace in this troubled world. Nay; I instead am open to a mission I feel will become apparent when the right year, month, and minute allow its approach. I stored that thought in the vault and resolved to stay always aware for my cause, whenever it decided to turn up and provide a purpose in my life.
Up on those mountains, I had a mess of ideas in my confused mind. Dreams of mariachi bands, the Kashmiri blue steel eyes, my future home and meaning, all inspired by the magic around me. I envisioned camping through the summer months and building my own furniture, producing artistic wares and earning only enough to support the most basic of needs, batheing and washing in bins of rain water, while also allowing myself freedom from anger at my own culture and self-righteous mind. And I wrote all these thoughts down with the expectation of laughing at myself down the road. But I was confused and growing, and this time around I'm not prepared to ridicule my bouts of idealism. I wanted to descend the mountain ready to compromise, tolerate, and approach the interpretation of my desires with Van Gogh-like self-wisdom. After five and a half months abroad, I was becoming ready to return home and follow my own clock, hoping America would give me the unpressured freedom to do so.
The next afternoon, Fayaz sent us down the mountain once more, this time because of insufficient water supplies. Half way down the backtrack, we blazed a new trail, a pin ball course on dead pine needles. I relished the opportunity they gave me to use my own legs and started running down the trail. They were impressed (finally) and especially because all their bad knees kept them at turtle speed. When the ground cover changed to a thick inch of needles laying on top of ankle-rolling pine cones, I lagged to the back once more after some falls on the derierre put some fear in my legs. The land tilted so far, my feet reached a full point in order to keep my body perpendicular to the horizon. My toes smashed into the tips of my shoes, and with the soft muddy ground making things not-so-easy, I moved like I had a baby on my back. Fayaz, probably feeling guilty for sending us off the mountain two nights early tromped ten paces ahead of me and stopped rhythmically to wait, which adequately mocked my progress. I got angry…and this is what I wrote at the bottom of the mountain:
"My inner monologue cursed in all the chameleon-life contexts possible throughout today's trek. Yesterday, I made quite an effort to hold onto that chemical imbalance that made me raving mad when I should only be humored…or at the worst, perturbed. Today, I took the last Kingfisher (purchased completely by me) and ran to the rapids for this purge and beer binge. This trek can be applauded for many things, but I will now vent those which most aggrivate me…things so colossal to my list of needs that no Haimuk Mountain can soften the unintentional blows.
"I'm not an idiot, not helpless, not incompetent, not made of money, and not a child. I could go on, but I got enough boo-hoo exclamations in that sentence. And as I sit here ready to complain about the cost of this trek, the guide, all the lack of communication with decisions made, and the commands to speed up, slow down, wait, and "just sit there with your chai and biscuits," I know I truly reason all those factors to be worth a connection to Kashmiri culture and these mountains of nature. The other night's evening pee with the stars, the half moon, the reflecting, rippling lake, and the mountain's presence, which genuinely frightened me, was one I will try to paint with any medium necessary to recapture what a photo wouldn't or couldn't do.
"What is this insistence to possess the dignity of a Queen? Is it just because this was an exhibition of my paucity of cardio strength or because I am a Western woman being treated like a subservient child while on this soul-searching, life-defining discovery tour of my own genuine opinions and trajectory? I gotta go; it's high tea time in the wilderness…"
When it comes to these moments when emotions spoil the expected thrill and good time, it placates me to remember it's not a wasted time thanks to the opinion on travel I've formulated. My mind has cycles, and they don't stop for vacation. Unfortunately, this sometimes means I have sour memories of thrilling destinations. They are "nothing fights" that part with a smile. It's hindsight appreciation for having had the opportunity to be pissed in the Himalayas. "An adventure," after all, "is an experience of discomfort, recalled later in a moment of tranquility." The snowstorms, the freezing, the sleepless nights, the pony rides, boulder jumping, chicken slaughtering, fish gutting, intra-group disagreements, chapped lips, traversing of mountain passes, scrambles up and down steep trails, blisters, bruised toes, matted hair, and staring down the slope into a cloudy abyss…yes, it was my very own Kashmir mountain adventure.
The final two days, I read…constantly. I read sprawled on rocks surrounded by rushing water, read by torchlight with my feet squishing the hot water bottle, read curled in the kitchen tent watching Riyaz and Fayaz butcher a freshly killed hen, and the book ran out of pages even before finding society once more. As the Kashmiri men packed the ponies for the final trail blaze, Mohamed took a lounge on a massive boulder and stared at nothing but pure H2O flowing past him. I gave him his space and sat downstream under an oak tree, assuming his head was filled with relief and coulda, woulda, shouldas regarding his recently finished film.
I ripped apart every orange, crispy leaf that fell into my lap and covered my face from earth, wind, and fire with my scarf, singing to an audience of one. As my voice slowly deteriorates from wear, age, or lack of use every year, I occasionally test my former strength to see if I not only have the ability to push out good sound but also the creativity and genius to interpret my mind music audibly, following the greats I blare from my car stereo. I think the consensus in that valley was a negative to original music skill, and if I wasn't inspired in that oasis, it meant I just don't have it…or I have to put some all-consuming effort into it. I never let myself completely rule out an option for life on the big journey…so I kept professional musician on the table from that moment on.
I climbed onto my pony express for the last time, thoroughly bruising both thighs on the ascent, and arrived back into Naranaj atop the trusty steed that hated me. We passed the ancient ruins that marked our start and passed gypsy wives of 16 and 18 years old, all giggling at my interpretation of the hijab with my dirty scarf.
The red jeep that took us back to Srinagar pulled up after we collapsed on bags of tents, onions, and down jackets. The one chicken that survived the entire journey still flapped and jerked her neck around inside the wicker cage, watching us suspiciously for the approach and that knife that would signal her demise.
Once loaded, we followed the ribbon of highway back to roads clogged with flamboyant buses, rickshaws, impatient cars, and herds of goats on a death row walk to the big city. Our driver, a younger version of the chain-smoking, strong-eyed man behind the wheel last time, was nothing short of the craziest driver I've ever witnessed from the backseat. He was a bully on the road, overtaking cars even when smaller opponents were oncoming fast, and his handle on the dimensions of his vehicle were astounding. He cleared motorbikes and goats by centimeters at top speeds, leading me to believe he really didn't care what happened to his car or the unlucky matter that came in contact with it. Mohamed gripped the handle above the window like he was hanging above a cloudy abyss, and I sunk my fingers into the two front seats to steady myself so I wouldn’t dive bomb the boys sitting on either side of me. Fayaz, Riyaz, and Captain Insane-o chatted and smoked like they were at a tailgate, while Mohamed and I exchanged looks that said, "Someone 's gonna die on this drive home".
And once we thought we had seen the extent of his recklessness, we got to a city road and saw a woman, dressed in a lime green sari, crossing the street far ahead of our car's projected path. Mohamed and I both saw the woman in plenty of time to notice she was possibly in our way if the driver didn't slow down. I actually remember him speeding up. Our grips deepened to white-knuckle status, eyes widened to let our pupils swim in seas of trembling white, and two warning screams filled the backseat as we sent the woman running to the median. I kid you not and have no room to exaggerate this recollection. The woman was an inch from being struck by our car going 45mph. The driver had to swerve and blare the horn in order to not make contact with a woman so close that we could see up her flared nostrils. The driver laughed at his close call. This sent Mohamed into an awe-struck rage. I sat in shock with my hands over my mouth the rest of the way to the houseboat. We sent the driver foul looks and no gratitude as we slid out of the car, happy to be stationary, and ran to our rooms for the much-anticipated, fire-heated showers.
The trek was over, and we welcomed civilization like we'd never experienced it before. Chai? Send it my way! Clean clothes? I'll put on the fanciest ones I've got! Hot dinner and a Wesley Snipes movie? Who can I worship for this miracle? Throw that winter husband in my bed and let my toesies sizzle while I read my newest novel. A man that approached my water taxi a week before drifted by our balcony thrones at dusk, and we went into a shopping frenzy as another Mohamed presented his hand-painted paper mache wares.
Fayaz wandered into our boat and offered his cell phone for me to call my awaiting parents. I hadn't told them about my trip to Kashmir, for fear of raising their already boiling blood pressures, but I guess my lack of contact for nine days caused even more distress; Papa Bear was contemplating a flight to India to find me. I heard the organ from the sanctuary behind their relieved voices. While they were at Sunday church, I was watching house lights squiggle toward me on the lake's surface that Sunday night.
Mohamed wanted to share tea and chit-chat that evening, both of us finally comfortable enough to not worry about frostbite or the smell of rotting clothes to actually talk, but I wandered like a zombie to my room and apologized for answering the call of my comforter to join it in slumber. Before falling into my bed's embrace, I walked to the bathroom and thought back to the last bathroom journey in the woods. I hope it's normal to reminisce or even prefer the thrill of the life or death stroll to the facilities. I had it with every squat in the African continent, every adventure behind a big rock in Kashmir, and when it's no longer acceptable, I get a little nostalgic. Yes, my trek in the Himalayan mountains brought out the real lady in me, and I wait with bated breath for my next low encounter with a grassy knoll.
Thank you, Nature.
I may have made a truly horrifying decision, pushed by the approach of an immediate journey, the desire to part with the urban jungle; the work of three assuring and ambiguously generous salesmen along with the back-up by happy Western customers…my gosh, who knows why I flew to Kashmir.
It's a thrill I normally find enchanting, but I may have abandoned my survival instinct. An adventure began, and I've taken to heart the discomfort factor all too much, up-ing the ante for life-changing and life-ending. Maybe I'm hoping, at some point, Che will peek into my dreams and say, "Now that's impressive," or maybe I just want a good story for cocktail hour. The present days and previous months are times of incredible personal vulnerability, and, while I dig my nose into my guidebook, I sometimes have no power against the moments of frightening spontaneity that present themselves for the snatching. I'm drunk with Himalayan fever and prepared to cry in awe and fear for a chance to be among the magnitude.
The previous passage was written after my arrival to Nageen Lake in Srinagar. As the boys warned me against, I, again, did too much thinking, and it led me to believe the explosions I heard from my perch on the houseboat balcony were gun shots and echoes of warfare. They were wedding celebrations.
Truth be recalled, I felt safer in this conflicted land, filled to capacity with armed militia, than I did in bomb-riddled Delhi. Government officials spotted me on the tarmac and gave me a phone number to call if I felt, for one instant, I was being swindled or put in danger. Escorted by police into the growing mob outside, I found my ride without the slightest hassle.
Nature's peaks struck me on the plane, and nature's leaves gave me something I knew I desperately missed: autumn. Though I couldn't completely silence the skepticism of my trip up north, the majority of my time was spent completely relaxed. I awoke early, crazy for the Kashmir tea and special flat bread of the region. I pounded through 300 pages of Indian fiction, which took place in the Himalayas, while upon my lakeside throne. And I ate dinner in the family boat next door with my hosts and their homemade goodness. Old men rowed me across the lake as if I deserved, past stretches of lily pads, Moghul bridges, and reflected mountains, on a taxi boat that resembled more the Dalai Lama's chaise than a means of transportation.
Fayaz, my host, scheduled a trek through the Gangabal Valley, fit with a cook, ponies, and their gypsy owners (and by gypsy I mean the acceptable term for people who live in the Karakorum mountains). It was my heart's desire, but October 6th came and went, and I remained on the boat's porch writing this:
This sky seems higher than any other, even though this one can actually be touched by things that trump its celestial magnitude. Some days the sun grants those peaks the penetrating colors that reveal their nooks from miles away and make this view spectacular for my waiting eyes…even when I know and feel the anticipation of the crags that top the world. This moment should be spent in the mountains, just hours from a pristine lake that will make our base camp for three days. Instead, just as the CNN ticker announces, we are denied the rights to embark past the neighborhood gates...
Following Ramadan and Eid, the military authority of J & K (Jammu and Kashmir) province issued a curfew, for the first time in over a decade, to prevent protests or civil unrest the world's media came prepared to capture. We approached checkpoints guarded with waist-height coils of razor wire and army officers in full bullet-proof gear.
Fayaz and the driver tried to bat their Kashmiri eyes and flash the curfew slip we had obtained for passage into town, regardless of the lockdown. Fayaz and the highest police commissioner were old drinking buddies, an unlikely bond in the Muslim community, and he gave us access to the guarded streets that could usher us out of town. Overnight, the rules changed, all passes now void, and every officer had the right to shoot on sight any civilian crazy enough to wander the streets sticky with tension.
Our fully-loaded jeep maneuvered through the neighborhood labyrinth until it tried every way out, and as the neighbors sat in their doorways, sipping chai and smoking, talking to their friends and customers, they stopped to stare at our brave mission, wondering if we would succeed in breaking curfew and getting out of town. As we passed, the only sounds of the high walled lanes were rocks grinding under our tires and the disturbed gurgles of the chickens on our roof.
Fayaz turned to me, after many failed attempts and told me I was to get out of the car at the next checkpoint and convince the gun, and the man holding it, to let me fulfill my dreams of trekking in Kashmir. I think they were amused by my timid audacity but, unfortunately, unfazed. Fayaz said they respected me more than the others in the car, but they were beyond peace talks. I guess we weren't a horse, or a chicken-topped jeep, of a different color. No way; no how.
We returned to the family houseboats, wearing all-telling, disappointed smiles to communicate the misfortune and apologies. Even as the slightly pink clouds reflected their frozen blow across the rim of those beautiful beasts, my present situation failed to match the freedom their presence and natural beauty stand for. 245,000 Indian army officers told me my encounter with the living hills must wait until tomorrow. I waited a year from my desire's conception to see what the peaks could do to me, and one more day made me appreciate the flexibility allotted to Americans in America, who can trek where they want, without the threat of manslaughter.
Kashmir stood alone, resting on its sky scraping laurels for ages, and, once pressured, help was needed from the closest source. Success was met. Hands shook for friendship. And people died. Now two animals fight for beauty, putting those relatives of the land in constant turmoil. They smile and make crafts. They paddle frilly boats and hold the hands of their fellow man friends. And on days like October 6th, they can only inhabit the front yard, if they're lucky, while others fear placing an eyeball around the curtain.
Indiana is not a place where you need to worry about gripping the purse at your side or walking cautiously to your car at night with mase at the ready. This lack of high thrills and danger may be one reason why some say it's a boring place to live. In fact, I think it's worth the money to see a spy/martial arts/thriller movie in the theaters, just for that walk to the car at the evening's end. I know I'm not a Bond or Chan, but something makes me feel like I've got a battlefield to face when the double doors close off the movie popcorn smell behind me. The bushes could be covering a group of black-outfitted ninjas, or a sniper on the roof may point his laser between my unprotected shoulder blades. I often do a skipping walk to my car, zig-zagging in between cars, while shouting to my friends that I'll call them tomorrow. I can't go to Steak'n'Shake now; there's a hit out on me. At the sight of the hawkers and scamming taxi drivers at the international flight terminal, I got the same anxious jitters and uncapped the pen in my hand as a makeshift weapon (that is, until I could located the bottle opener in my bag), held low at my side. Upon leaving the protection of the airport, it's hard not to feel like a potential victim of every trick on the streets. Amplifying this sensation of worry would be the Lonely Planet side stories, warning naive travelers of moments when others let their guards down and lost money and lives. I forgot the feeling I left with from my last India experience and stuck my nose at my trust in a well-highlighted guide book.
After dozing off the exhaustion of two sleepless nights and a sun-scorched day in the desert, I cut through the smelly, humid air of the Pahar Ganj district, bee-lining it to one recommended restaurant after the other, not even hungry but ordering a $.05 piece of bread or drink to validate my indulgence of their AC.
And the I started to make the most shameful of travel accessories, the day-to-day itinerary. It didn't feel right, but, hey, when your own vulnerability consumes you, control is sought by any means. I booked a bus to Manali, a destination chosen because it was colder; reasoning stops there.
Equipped with an LP, an itinerary, and an unhealthy distrust in everyone around me, I patrolled those seedy streets once more before my eighteen hour bus ride into the foothills of the Himalayas. India is its own world, in appearance, in movement, in the way things work and the way they can lead to the next fantastical moment. I hate to try and use cliche phrases or vague generalizations to describe a place I want others to experience on the magic carpet of my words. So I'm not gonna say, "Um, wow, it was dirty and smelly and gross."
Instead, imagine a street lined by buildings that have no order, uniformity, or evidence of being cleaned in the last fifty years. Power lines and wires stretched above the lanes as if a massive electric spider constructed a floating civilization above the puddled and filthy ground. Humans of all ages and professions, dogs, cats, rats, cows, bikes, rickshaws, and elephants move about, to their own agendas, all while amazingly dancing in time out of oncoming, chaotically unpredictable traffic; like a Visa CheckCard commercial until someone sight-seeing or mind-boggled by their surroundings sends a cyclist off track and into a Kashmir apple vendor.
Thinking of both my health (mainly avoiding Delhi belly) and the astoundingly low cost of eats, I stopped at stood, confused, in front of an ash-covered bread stand, hoping to score some tasty goods with the nine rupees jingling in my board shorts. A stranger bailed me out of a 'Lost in Translation' moment (three rupees a chapati, three chapatis for the road) and then surprised me with his hold on the English language.
Thinking I was ordering my lunch, he, my new friend Mudi, invited me to join him for chow at his shop and inquired about my India plans. I thought this was one of those moments I was read up and prepared for, thanks to an LP warning box; he mentioned Kashmir. RING THE ALARM!!! A SCAM! Oh, the nerve of these Kashmiri poachers...why I let him in far enough to start the schpeal...wasting my last hours in Delhi. His kindness made me reflect mild interest and appreciation on the outside, but I was working on an escape route inside that would match the suave of his approach. And then he took me to a travel agent, his roommate and lifelong buddy, where the pitch continued.
The previous day, I rolled my eyes and ran from any chattering stalker who mentioned a leisurely trip to Kashmir, knowing that most of these men were involved in an old trick that sends travelers to the tip of India cheaply and corners them into paying boat loads (or, in this case, house boat loads) to do anything else.
Ashika, the agent, made his case by pointing at the numerous pictures and newspaper articles on the wall, claiming not only his company's legitimacy, but their sky-high level of satisfaction from previous travelers. And then they proceeded to call one happy customer after the other, one being an American woman of 24 traveling alone who was at the family house boat...nice hand, my friends. Each reference affirmed my hopes that these Delhi hooligans weren't crooks by any stretch of the imagination.
My LP laid open on my lap to the page quoting Bill Clinton in 2000: Kashmir is probably the most dangerous place in the World.
Comforting. The minutes disintegrated, and my bus departure time tested me to make the right decision for my safety, to cut the right wire, to choose the right pill. There was something about these guys and their effortless charisma, not to mention addictive humor; it seemed like they didn't really care which way I swayed but that I enjoy myself, though knowing Kashmir was the answer to my big travel dreams.
It's true; I didn't come for the India of urine stains and city smog. I had taken nine steps toward the mountains of my favorite books, and this major move seemed like the final, appropriate choice for the tenth step. More of their friends came and went, jokes and friendly punches thrown, and chai after chai flew down our traps while they laughed at my distressed decision making process..."If you think too much, nothing will happen." My shoulders lowered simultaneously with the rise of a grin, and the invisible NO I had hovering above me, like a Sim City player indicator, faded, leaving me bare and ready for the adventure ahead.
High fives all around. The itinerary became a bookmark in the Lonely Planet I closed for two weeks. I was refreshed and oddly more comfortable with the new plan. I watched as Ashika took care of the business of buying my unused bus ticket, booking a flight, and telling his family in Srinagar I was on my way to their house boat. This tiny room full of boys extended and invitation to stay in their apartment that night, along with their friend from Holland, Lika, who had known the rowdy bunch for years and was in town to visit them. Not that they didn't give me a good gut feeling of security, their company's reputation hanging on the positive treatment of their customers, but Lika's presence made it easier to accept and explain the choice to those who may be skeptical from afar.
Gut instincts led to belly laughs and one of the best moments in my trip. When it comes to social moments of joy on this journey, none top the ones that make me wish I had a camera embedded in my forehead. These are times I know I'll want to remember in sight, spirit, and detail, but pulling out a camera would ruin that which is most priceless of the moment at hand. Those next twelve hours included interesting conversations over coffee, games and a few beers on a rooftop over Delhi, and sitting on the floor in a small room with five other people, fingers slick with orange cooking oil and lips tingling from the spices of home-cooked meals, parted in smiles.
The boys were childhood friends and all had an air of being naturally intelligent and downright gifted; they absorbed us seamlessly into their fermented dynamic in the way only instant comrades can. They impersonated every nationality under the hot Delhi sun, told embarrassing stories of each other, gave me a 3am lesson in making Kashmiri tea, and welcomed me to the Himalayas, pointing to Mudi's colossal nose, also known as K2. We slept like pick-up sticks, scattered across the floor, each of us pretending the billowing AC was mountain air off the Karakorum range of their homes...and my new destination.