Saturday, 2 August 2014
“I met a hundred men going to Delhi and everyone is my brother.”
Pope Paul VI
Pope Paul was an underachiever. There were a hundred men just hanging off the outside of the bus that stopped at the Tibetan baker’s shack, at the bottom of Naggar hill. The women were all inside, with husky voices, bright pattoo dresses, silver broaches, shawls and scarves, hemp slippers, long nose wires, and enough gold loops punched through their ears to hang curtains. It was exotic.
We were leaving Naggar with a whimper. I had already met my Destiny, but it was here she had planted her flag. In the calm castle solitude, we had become something timeless, and we felt a profound sadness on leaving.
An hour later, the bus crawled, over the swaying bridge across the Beas, to the far side of Kullu, once Kulanthpitha, the End of the Habitable World.
In the middle of a local festival rehearsal at the bus stand, we found a totally disinterested unshaven potbellied official, who finally told us of a ‘superfast, ordinary’ overnight bus to Delhi, leaving at seven thirty that evening. Becoming more familiar with the adjectives used by Indian functionaries, I asked him if it was ‘superfast’ or ‘ordinary.’
“It will be very superfast and very ordinary.” He reassured us. After a round of veg cutlets and Limcas at the HP Café next door, we set off up a winding two-kilometer shop-lined incline, to provision our night journey. I bought bread and peanut butter, Julie bought apples, and Robyn bought bananas, in a harmonic subliminal birthday cake fugue state. I stopped to play a portable pump organ, a square eight-dollar banjo, a mile-high fretted guitar, and a flute with a miserably tough reed, in a music shop further down the road. This drew the predictable crowd and, unlike what would have happened in ‘my country’, further encouragement from the owner. We looked over the pashmina shawls in the Government Emporium, but none came close to those that Soman had shown us in Leh. I promised Robyn that, some day, I would be able to afford to buy her one.
Julie had her fortune predicted in Hindi, with bystander translation. She had a choice of the three-rupee caged bird random beak selection of ‘superfast and ordinary’ preprinted predictions, or the deluxe five-rupee palmistry divination. Julie never scrimped, where fate was involved. With an extra special head bobble, the palm reader told her that she would have ‘long life, money, and marriage at thirty-two.’ She was pleased.
We took a more convoluted route back down to wait for our bus, past one of the Mahatma’s spinning wheels, whirling on the sunlit balcony of a mud-colored shack. Under an umbrella on the side of the road, was another white-turbaned swami, with a beard and a bobble. Julie sought double-blinded prospective end-point validation for her fortune. Serious research takes serious money, and another five rupees hit the lotto. She crossed his palm and he crossed hers. He told her that she would have ‘long life, money, and marriage at thirty-two.’ She was pleased. It may have been proof, or it may have been productivity. I kept the Bob Dylan in my head, behind my tongue.
‘Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you're gonna have to serve somebody.’
We arrived back at the station to meet François and a friend, watched the sun go down, and tell stories until our bus arrived, in a cloud of dust. The fleshy functionary had been very correct. It was very ordinary, very, very even. The original interior had undergone the usual rewelding and reupholstering, in order to squeeze in more seats and passengers. Considering we were already twice as large as the locals, our determination to shoehorn ourselves into one of these shin-shearing blood-clot traps for an overnight ordeal to Delhi, could have only been construed as an attempt at deliberate self-harm.
After finding three ‘seats’ abreast, on the right side, near the back and across from Francois and friend, the driver went from very ordinary to very super fast, too much so for the Italian girl who vomited out the window after the first curves. A burning house drove by us on the right, and we settled into the nightmare. The metal edges of welds that had never seen a grinder began to cut into flesh. The oxygen that departed with us, left warm nitrogen and body odor that became progressively more humid as we descended onto the Deccan plain. Julie’s ability to fall asleep anywhere kicked in and, as her head began clanging off the upright heavy metal poles in surround sound, Robyn and I began rubbing ours in sympathy. When an occasional particularly large bus lurch concussed her more than usual, she would awaken momentarily, just long enough to hold the traumatized bit, before falling back to sleep. In the morning she wondered why she had a headache.
But it wasn’t going to be morning for a very long while, and an hour into the marathon, I began to receive the kind of agonizing signals that strike terror in the heart of any traveler. The HP café’s veg cutlets had grown into cutlasses, and were carving a swath through my intestines. At one rest stop, in a town without toilets, I read the news behind a house. At another, too far down the road, I left four little pools of nectar in the turnoff grass. The pain came in breakers, rollers, and big kahuna swells. It was most excruciating at the crest of each wave and, when the froth and backwash tried to rumble ahead of the bus, took every ounce of my remaining energy to maintain continence. I began to live for rest stops, and wish for death. On a southern night heading to the ancient Mughal city of ShahJahanabad, the same strangury and dysentery, that killed the ‘Ruler of the World’ in 1658, was honing its powers of liquidation and elimination, on a far lesser mortal. I had Delhi belly, and I wasn’t even there yet.
Friday, 1 August 2014
“And after a time he returned to take her, and he turned aside to see the
carcase of the lion: and, behold, there was a swarm of bees and honey in
the carcase of the lion.”
The spicy incense coming from the small temple in the courtyard, wafted over our breakfast next morning. Vermilion paste smeared the doorway. I asked Madhukar what it signified. He told us of the powerful legend that was associated with the castle, and the tiny Jagti Patt temple within its walls. There was a massive stone slab, five feet by eight feet and six inches thick, inside the shrine. When the gods decided to make Naggar the celestial seat of all the gods in the world, they transformed themselves into honeybees, endowed with Herculean power. They flew to the high sacred mountain of Deo Tibba, cut a monolith from its face, and flew it back to its present site in the castle courtyard. It is still the unshaken belief of the locals that, even now in times of calamity, all the Kullu gods assemble here to mitigate the suffering of the people.
The three little girls playing in the mud below the castle didn’t sound like they were suffering, if the giggling that came through the mud was accurate. They sang a song behind our descent. A devotee of the courtyard temple ran ahead of us, with a dab of the doorway vermilion paste smeared on his forehead, marking the bond between the wild god honeybees and the humanity below. We passed the grey sandstone 11th century Shiva temple of Gauri Shankar, carved with monkeys and lions and flowers, and topped with an umbrella-like slate roof.
At the bottom of the hill was a makeshift A-frame bakery, and its shorthaired Tibetan owner, in his saffron shirt and a carnelian chuba, draped loosely over two great high boots. His dog didn’t bark, as it came out of the darkened interior of the shack, to check the sudden traffic. Julie and I looked at each other, in a simultaneous recognition that this could be an answer to our problem.
Robyn was about to have her 29th birthday, but it was going to be at Naggar, and it was going to be the next day. I had already asked Madhukar about a birthday cake, but he told me it was impossible. One of the differences between the Tibetans and the Indians, it is that the Tibetans will expect that nothing is possible, and go on to disprove it; whereas the Indians will expect that nothing is impossible and also go on to disprove it. When an Indian tells you that something is impossible, go see the Tibetan. Julie whispered to him that we would return next morning, without Robyn.
But that day we hiked up another height, to the Light of the Morning Star, Urusvati, the Institute of Himalayan Studies founded by Nicholas Roerich. Russian mystic, painter, philosopher, scientist, writer, traveler, and public figure, Roerich was the kind of man who would have been ignored if he had stayed at home. By escaping to live in another culture, he became noteworthy and unique, because of the noteworthy and unique geographical displacement, dislocation and dissonance. His breathtaking mansion, with a resplendent view of the Dhauladhar Mountains on all three sides, was adequate reward for his gallery of mediocre paintings. Roerich is widely credited to have formulated the principle difference between culture and civilization. I hadn’t realized there had ever been one. However, in one of the rooms I met Jackie, a thirty odd, very odd, fanatical feminist, who was living proof that one can exist without either.
This encounter was counterbalanced at dinner that evening by a new addition to our Naggar nucleus. Francois was a delightful balding research mathematician, originally from Paris, and working in Bombay. He told us that Peter O’Toole was on his way to the Wild Bee Castle, to film a movie version of Kipling’s Kim. Madhukar said that he had heard it as well, and that nothing was impossible. Unfortunately, or fortunately, Peter O’Toole didn’t arrive until a month later. He played a Tibetan monk, with absurd doddering mannerisms, and an atrociously inauthentic costume. It may have been just as well we left early.
There was nothing inauthentic about our Tibetan baker next morning. Julie and I snuck out while Robyn was still sleeping. We let Alan and Adera and Francois know about the birthday party later on, and dropped the two hundred meters to the bakery entrance. His dog licked my hand as we drank ginger chai, and Julie drew a picture of a birthday cake. He didn’t seem to understand at first, until she added the candles. We had seen the convergence of culture and civilization. Or so we thought. We arranged for him to personally deliver the cake up the hill that evening, all for ten rupees.
The day melted into Scrabble games, a brief entourage of Indian tourists from Bombay, and planning for my true Destiny.
Madhukar’s curried veg repast was up to his usual standard of unexceptional sustenance, but he returned to the dining room in a slightly excited state, carrying rice and a message. Someone was at the door for Julie. Robyn wondered out loud who it could be, but stayed to continue the conversation we were involved with. Julie got up quietly, to engage the convergence of culture and civilization. She wasn’t quiet long.
“What?!” was heard all over the valley. “What?!” she screamed again. I jumped up, motioning to everyone seated that they should remain so, and that everything was under control. Reaching the kitchen door, I saw the source of Julie’s exclamation.
Our Tibetan baker had arrived with his creation, three very heavy loaves of dung-like bread, clearly inspired by the barn wall pattern of cow patties in his universe. Goodness knows what he thought the candles were.
“Big balep, no?” He asked sheepishly.
“No!” Julie said. But it was too late. The birthday moment had arrived, and we had, as our only substrate to create a facsimile of a birthday cake, three loaves of ponderous hefty Tibetan barley bread. We turned to Madhukar, recently arrived back in the kitchen. No head bobble. Bad sign. We thanked the baker, and sent him back to his cultural roots. Without drawing breath, we turned to the rest of the kitchen, rummaging through shelves and drawers, looking for a means of salvation. There wasn’t much, but there was enough.
We found a tin of custard powder, a jar of Bhutanese red jam of some unidentified fruit, and bananas. Julie sliced the balep breads across their horizontal galactic axis, creating six dense thinner layers from three lead weights. I spread the Bhutanese jam on each side of the millstones. Just another brush with Paradise. Madhukar, meanwhile, had fired up the stove and already had a pot of daffodil camouflage custard ready to pour on our assembly. All of us attacked the bananas with knives, until the yellow molten mass was covered in sliced cadmium coins. A large white wax candle stake was driven through its heart. It looked, for all the world, like a birthday cake.
Jules and I sported it into the dining room on a refrain of Happy Birthday. From the pain in my arms, a forklift would have made for a safer workplace. Or a godswarm of wild honeybees, endowed with Herculean power.
Robyn smiled and thanked us, and broke the first knife in the ritual cutting of the replica. We all eventually got a piece, and tucked in with the kind of enthusiasm that all civilized birthdays demand. I looked back at the carnage at the end of the evening, as Madhukar was switching off the chandelier. The bananas and custard were gone. In their place were several wedges of baked barley flour. None of them had teeth marks. With the cone geometry of what was left, you could have completely reconstructed three large loaves of Tibetan bread. It was September 11th.
Ten years earlier, they had finished building the World Trade Center in New York. They had used the wrong materials. Here, in the Castle of the Wild Bees, they had the architectural construction expertise required, to withstand all the mighty and disastrous earthquakes of life.
Wednesday, 30 July 2014
“When the flower blooms, the bees come uninvited.”
The road was held together with flocks of goats and serpentine curves. Thirty cents had bought us an hour and a half of coiled vertigo. The bus driver threw in the bananas for free, and finally dropped us at the bottom of a hill, just past the sign.
Population 507 Souls.
Surrounded by glaciers and razor-thin waterfalls on three sides, the town spread out like the leaf of a pipal tree, unfolded on the slope of Han peak. We hoisted our packs, and began the long climb to the imposing medieval citadel cantilevered off the cliff above us, effortlessly hanging in the morning Himalayan air. We passed a whitewashed barn, decorated with rows of circular cow patties stuck on its walls- fuel, furnishing, and function. The white uniformed brown servant who met us at the top was named Madhukar. He told us that he spoke only Hindi. In perfect English.
“Is this Naggar Castle?” Julie asked. Head bobble.
On the other side of Naggar River, in the 13th century, a powerful ruler with a reputation for cupidity and stupidity, had built and fortified his royal residence of Gardhak. On the advice of his wazir, Rana Bhosal had also buried his own queen along the watercourse, to ensure a continuous supply of irrigation for his rice fields. She had been alive at the time of her presumed reluctant interment, but clearly not a favorite of the wazir. In 1460 AD the Raja Sidh Singh, had the stones from Rana Bhosal’s palace passed hand to hand, through a chain of human laborers across the river to the current site of Naggar Castle. His view of the Valley of the Gods and snow-laden peaks was still staggering.
When the Chinese pilgrim monk Xuanzang came through the surrounding mountain passes in 635 AD, his route followed a series of meditation caves, into a fertile valley of gold and silver, and red copper and crystal lenses. He entered a green idyll of twenty Buddhist monasteries, fifteen Hindu temples, and mixed devotees who lived together in harmony.
Madhukar showed us to our rooms- gigantic rooms with adze-carved ceiling beams, sloping floors, priceless Victorian furniture, gingerbread beds, and a verandah with red scalloped Moghul-curve carved portals, projecting wooden brackets, and one of the most spectacular panoramas in the world.
In the attached dining room a large antique glass chandelier hung pendulously over a huge oaken table, surrounded, on the wallpaper, by a herd of gazelle head trophies. A fireplace sat in one corner of the room and in another, Alan and Adera, two Kiwi hikers who, although exuberantly friendly towards us, didn’t seem to have much to say to each other. We arranged to meet them later for dinner.
Julie wandered off to check out the new neighborhood, and Robyn and I stretched out over our gingerbread bed, and a quiet game of Scrabble. It was all so absurdly romantic.
He came in through the window on a triple word score. Robyn and I looked at each other. The intruder spoke.
“A very good afternoon, Sahib.” He said. “Perhaps you may be wishing to purchase some ganja?” We looked at each other again. The balcony was suspended in space, several thousand feet above the valley floor. In harmony, our interloper levitated imperceptibly above the sloping floor.
“It is only of the very highest quality.” He assured us. It seemed credible. I asked him how he got up here, to the side of the castle suspended in the air. He only giggled, and head bobbled, and giggled again. I looked back at Robyn, and reached into my Kashmiri pouch. A commodity like that, it just doesn’t float through the window every day. He left through the dining room, counting his rupees.
Madhukar, his white uniform a little worse for the day, was already serving Alan and Adera, when we finally entered the dining room around seven thirty. They had spent the afternoon summiting most of the peaks around the valley, but we had climbed higher. Both groups had healthy appetites for Madhukar’s dhal and rice and veg curry. Halfway through the trifle, the chandelier began to swing. Everyone looked up from the custard. I looked to Madhukar.
“Is that an earthquake?” Robyn asked. Head bobble.
“Are we safe?” Asked Julie. Head bobble.
“Does this happen very often?” Alan inquired. Head bobble.
“Jesus, man, say something. Are we in danger?” I asked. Everyone was keenly aware that we were hanging off a cliff, conspicuous in the extreme to the unforgiving gravitational forces of the planet. Madhukar’s lips finally moved, in English.
“No problem.” He bobbled. “Naggar Castle five hundred years old. Many earthquakes. Naggar town flattened.” He moved his hand across the scene, palm down. “But Naggar Castle, no problem.”
I learned much later how right he was. And why. There had been a mighty and disastrous earthquake in 1905. Naggar town was destroyed. Naggar Castle didn’t move. The reason lay in its local architectural construction style, an antiseismic technique known as kathkooni. Stone layers were punctuated with long pieces of cut wood, ensuring a lot of resilience in the structure. It rose, to be topped by a grey slate roof. But it never fell.
The wooden carvings in its walls were no less exquisite than the wooden carvings within its walls. Every evening, the temple bells around Naggar tolled the music of compassion, peace and brotherhood, unrestrained. Later, tucked in our gingerbread beds, we watched the shooting stars, through the Moghul holes in the verandah.
Tuesday, 29 July 2014
“Remember that not getting what you want is sometimes a wonderful
stroke of luck.”
We spotted the big red Bandar-log monkeys on our final ascent through the clouds. In the upper reaches of the Kangra Valley, the dense green forest of Deodar cedars rose almost two hundred feet above the rhododendrons and rivers, into the aerosol coolness of the Himachal Pradesh air.
Earlier that morning, two manpowered rickshaws peddled furiously towards the exhortations of a departing driver. We had just enough time to throw ourselves after our packs, and onto his J&K bus to Dharamsala. Except for the three quick sweet cardamom chais and potato caraway carry away pakoras at a picturesque collection of shacks in the hill country, the shifting gears pitched us up and down without reprieve or remorse, along the contour lines of the Dhauladhar mountains.
Dharmashālā, derived from Sanscrit, means a spiritual dwelling or sanctuary. In more common Hindi usage, it refers to a rest house for spiritual pilgrims. Less than twenty-five years before we arrived, it became the penultimate rest house for the ultimate spiritual pilgrim.
In March 1959, Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, was chased out of his Himalayan realm, and established his government-in-exile at McLeod Ganj, forty minutes higher. Robyn and Julie and I finally stopped in the sky sanctuary of Little Lhasa, or Dhasa. We checked into a twenty-five rupee triple at Rainbow Lodge, with a panoramic view of the town, a sigh of relief, and an urgency.
In the émigré era of the Tibetan banana pancake, the Himalayan Restaurant was the epicenter of expatriate excellence. The Dalai Lama had told us that happiness came from our own actions. Sixty cents and a stroll through his neighborhood, took us right there. They were the best pancakes in the world.
The afternoon monsoon rain caught up with us on the way back up the hill, providing a perfect white noise excuse to reflect, recharge, and read, the rest of the day. Scrabble turned into sleep. Time passed so quickly when you arrived at a destination in India; and so slowly during the journey to get there.
McLeod Ganj was one of those places that swallowed time to nourish souls. Every morning the mist rolled down the lush terraced hills. We spent three days in its cool mountain air, spinning giant prayer wheels, eating our way through the Himalayan menu, and meeting Tibetans and fellow travelers. We ascended from banana pancakes to roasted barley porridge tsampa, which we spooned into the bottom of our buttered tea, and rolled into spherical morsels, trying to get the balance right. There was calm.
A Peruvian let me borrow his guitar, to entertain some children on the steps of the Rainbow. A wealthy Dar es Salaam daddy's boy boasted of his Tanzanian superiority.
“We have no beggars, no shortages, and no corruption.” He said. I told him how much I had made on the black market in two days.
One of my favorites was Yorkshire Dave.
“Ee, by gum.” He would say, before each sentence. One evening at the Himalayan, I pointed out the gigantic spider slowing crawling up his leg.
“Aye.” He said, and went on eating. There was another spider the same size, in our loo at the Rainbow. You could always tell a giant spider, but you couldn’t tell him much.
One morning, I sat in on a clinic under the tin roof of the Tibetan Medical Institute. Inside the yellow boards, I watched a Tibetan women doctor spend almost forever, listening to the wails of a large Indian lady in a gold sari. She put three fingers on each pulse, tore a hastily written prescription off her paper pad, and rolled two eyes at me as the Hindu hysteria left. She had more to give the turquoise and coral patients who followed.
Julie and I bought yin-yang rings, and I got two Tibetan books, one of medicine and one of language. Our last morning found packs on our backs, clouds on our shoulders, and Himachal verdant green Pradesh at our feet. We walked past barking dogs, down Jogiwara Road, to the inwardly sloped white walls and projecting black window casings of the Tibetan Library. Here I spent time with the rGyud bZhi, the definitive Tibetan medical textbook written by Yuthok Yonten Gonpo in the 12th century. His chapters were not organized much differently than the 20th century Harrison’s I had studied in medical school, except that he had written in black ink for his disciples, and gold for his sons, probably more than Harrison had done for his. Yuthok eventually left for Happy Valley with three hundred fellow travelers. I continued down the hill, toward the same destination, with two.
In Dharamsala, three lazy men behind a ticket counter, told us that the bus to Manali would leave at five am. The Hindi-speaking parrot outside was more informative. We found a bleak corner room in the Rising Moon, and ventured out for vegetable fried rice and the cloudy green fluorescent contents of a ‘veri veri Lime & Lemoni ’ Limca, the soft drink of choice in the subcontinent at the time, and the sponsor of the Limca Book of Records.
One record we were unaware of, was that Limca’s wonderful cloudiness came from brominated vegetable oil, a cause of bromide poisoning, the symptoms of which included restlessness, irritability, confusion, hallucinations, psychosis, weakness, and stupor. Since that could have been any day in India, no one was suspicious. Bromism also caused constipation, an extremely rare but welcome day in India. Limca’s popularity was unsurpassed, until the government in Delhi banned brominated vegetable oil, five years after we left.
At 3:45 am, Robyn and Julie and I escaped through the iron grate at the bottom of the Rising Moon stairs, into a black but eerily calm trudge to the lights of the bus stand. We chugged a hasty chai, heaved our packs onto the roof, and helped push jumpstart our bus on the road to Happy Valley Manali. The driver was an obese, blasé, chain cheroot-smoking unbuttoned medical disaster, but he took the curves in his sleep. We passed through the mountains, beside shacks and stalls and waterfalls, idle cows and goatherds, under circling hawks that seemed to be passing their reconnaissance on to the next circling hawk. The suspension towers of the hundred year-old bridge at Mandi were scraped with deep wounds, by decades of maneuvering buses. A ‘breakdown delay’ slowed us in Kullu, and a window shattered all over Simon, a third year British medical student, who cradled his hand painted thangka like a baby.
Following the towering pine and cedar covered hills along the Beas River, we finally arrived in the Valley of the Gods around five-thirty in the afternoon. Smiling Steve had recommended a particular mountain sanctuary. The girls and I retrieved our packs, and set off on an uphill path to find it.
Surrounded by orchards and flowers, we emerged into a clearing with a Victorian white-peaked hill station on the left, and late afternoon clouds descending down the soaring conifer-covered peaks to the right. We had arrived at the Sunshine Guesthouse. The British had introduced trout to the rivers in Manali. When they first introduced apple trees, they grew so heavy so fast with fruit that branches, unable to bear the weight, would collapse. After an ice-cold stream freezing shower, a dinner of roast chicken, potatoes, and apple crumble, we did too.
Manali was home to the Saptarshi Seven Sages, the seven rishi patriarchs of the Vedic religion, represented by the seven stars of the Big Dipper. The Dipper rose high above the guesthouse night sky, across from the constellation of the creator god, Prajapati, who’d had an incestuous relationship with his daughter, the Dawn. In the major Hindu epic, the Mahabarata, Orion was also the warrior Skanda, six-headed son of Shiva, and god of war. Riding a red crested cock and blowing fearful sounds on his conch shell, he thrust his three belt star spear into the White Mountain, splitting the top off into the sky, creating the Milky Way, and restoring Peace.
After all this chaos and trauma, on my own long three-year road to Happy Valley, the peace was its own reward. I had entered the best time, a calm unfettered rest time. Destiny was mine to hold. With no possessions or priorities, our souls unburdened. There were singing crickets and birds, and the smell of wood fire and mountains. For just this span of time and space, across the Himalayan foothills, from the eternal struggle between success and death, was refuge. We would never be so free again.
The Mona Lisa smiled on the wall above us. She was named after the restaurant (or it may have been the other way around). A steady procession of shawl-weavers, thangka-painters, and other artisans, paraded their wares in succession, before our morning ritual of omelettes and bitter corn flakes. We hiked the paths in the hills above the rustic houses, with their overhanging wooden balconies and sandstone roofs, beyond the old Manu temple and newer Buddhist ones. A young boy asked us if we wanted to buy ganja. We pointed to the coarse hedgerows of wild marijuana growing as far as one could see all around us, along our trail.
“Not finished.” He said.
We returned to the guesthouse, just as the invading late afternoon clouds began their descent down the slopes around us. The evening dissolved into homemade tuna casserole and Scrabble games.
We woke next morning to the bell of a tricycle, vigorously thumbed by a little Sikh boy, chasing his Tibetan puppy in the courtyard. After our Mona Lisa breakfast, we began a long hike down the emerald Valley, beside the Bea's torrent to the Vashisht baths. Robyn and Julie and I got a deluxe family tub with a sewer pipe-sized hot gushing sulfur inlet and a small cold one. We jostled each other to stay under the cold one. After twenty minutes of splashing about, I left the girls to cool off on the terrace outside, watch the wall lizards, drink apple juice, and wonder why anyone could stand to be anywhere else. The incense-blackened interior of Lord Ram’s stone temple contained wonderful woodcarvings.
We picked apples and Himalayan strawberries on the way back to the Sunshine, and the calm unfettered rest time. Clouds came floating down, adding color to our sunset sky.
Edgar Bergen: “Well, they didn’t have radios in those days.”
Charlie McCarthy: “Yeah. That’s why they called it Happy Valley.”
Mortimer Snerd: “Uh... Happy Valley?”
Edgar Bergen: “That’s right, yes. Now, just try to imagine it. Can’t
you just close your eyes and see it?”
Mortimer Snerd: “Well, I can’t see very good with my eyes closed.
My eyelids get in the way.”
Edgar Bergen: “Well, you create a picture in your minds eye.”
Mortimer Snerd: “Oh.”
Charlie McCarthy: “That’s not easy for him. His mind gets in the way.”
Fun & Fancy Free (1947)
Monday, 28 July 2014
The second day of the bus trip back to Srinagar was more tedious. I remember the stars and river roar over the barely lit chai stalls beside the bus in Kargil at 4:30 am. The light rose behind us, as Robyn’s head bobbed on my shoulder and over the bumps. The ratio of acha, ‘alright’, to chalo, ‘let’s go’, became unity.
Seven hours later we pushed a path through the desert shepherds herding their Nubian goat hordes, up and over the spectacular twelve thousand foot Zoji-La, crossing into the pine-coated peaks and grassy meadows and alpine chalets of Sonamarg Vale. The glacier-fed cascading streams and pony corrals felt like British Colombia, except for the Himalayan hawks riding thermals above our curried dhal and snowtrout. The clouds that accompanied our descent, obscured an endless procession of Indian army TATA trucks, winding around narrow precipices, back into Kashmir.
When we finally reached the relative din of Srinagar in the late afternoon, the driver received a standing ovation. A painfully slow rickshaw transported us to Best Spring Seats, who paddled us across the narrow expanse of water to Rashid and Jimmy, waiting on the New Cherrystone verandah. The three-quarter moon rose over three half-awake travelers, falling onto lunar-lit lake fish, and potato and turnip stew. We were asleep before Rashid could bring out his pudding.
The only thing we accomplished the next day was the purchase of a watermelon. Rashid served it to us for dinner, actually, as dinner. For desert, we helped him plan his culinary renaissance, in our next, and final, evening.
Jimmy wrapped our parcels next morning, while Robyn and Julie and I ventured back into town. Our taxi broke down on the way, and his replacement drove us far too far from where we thought we wanted to go. We emerged on the Bund along the river, outside an old Kashmiri house with a gabled tin roof, two chimneys, and a protruding second story enclosed balcony, half-banked with shuttered windows and a sign. Suffering Moses.
Inside was beautiful and magical and filled with wonderful things. Moses had earned his adjective from the fine detailed work he brought to his objets d’art, papier mâché, and walnut woodcarvings. What he didn’t suffer were louts, one of which he was ejecting as we ascended his staircase.
“You obviously don’t know anything about art.” He said. “I will not sell my work to Philistines.”
We smiled and tried to look knowledgeable. I fell in love with a walnut box and was eventually allowed to buy it. He initially did not want to part with it, until his Bostonian wife intervened. She told me that Moses had a pet deer that he had rescued from a butcher shop. Obviously a man of wise principle and congenial character, he recommended hummus and sweet lassis in the shade of the four hundred year old chinars, on the garden lawn of the Tao café. Later, we found out it belonged to his grandson.
Back on the New Cherrystone, Rashid had rehabilitated himself. He returned the harmonica I had lost, and served a wonderful last supper of fried liver and onions, roast potatoes, green beans and stewed apples. The night was broken by thunder, lightning, and Jimmy, yelling orders to batten down the houseboat against the sudden monsoon.
The cloudburst’s confusion continued into a dawn downpour. Jimmy and Rashid accompanied us, under the canopy of Best Spring Seats across the lotus and lilies, and into a motor rickshaw to the bus stand. We ploughed through the deep potholes until, just near the traffic circle across from the bus stand, we pitched forward into one that didn’t seem to have a bottom, until we met the submerged concrete island.
Jimmy was hurled against a sharp ragged metal bar, gashing open his forehead. He couldn’t see through the blood. Rashid applied pressure. The driver received a similar slash across the bridge of his nose, but walked through another knee-deep puddle to find out our bus number. We insisted on taking Jimmy to the hospital ourselves, but he and Rashid waved us off towards the waiting bus. We made sure he was securely on his way to treatment in another lawnmower, paid off our own rickshaw-wallah, put our packs in the cockpit, and settled into seats near the front. The young pharmacist sitting next to me was so talkative, I wondered if he wasn’t sampling his wares.
It was downhill from Kashmir, in ether and inclination. We waited two hours for a landslide, and then took our place in the string of trucks winding through the hills and subtropical gorges. Time dragged on mercilessly. The bone jarring was punctuated only by potato and onion fritters at a chai stop.
We finally arrived in Jammu past the floodlit castle in the late evening, to an unexpected change of buses. Our tickets were for a ‘double D’ direct and deluxe coach to Pathankot, where we hoped to catch another to the Dalai Lama’s exile home in MacLeod Ganj, the next day. Our conveyance had been devoid of deluxe. The realization that we had also been deprived of direct was not sitting well.
The driver had motioned for us to retrieve our packs and leave to find our new ‘double D,’ somewhere in the labyrinth of the makeshift multitude. When Julie told him that we had too much luggage to move, he barreled through the crowd, inspiring terror and scattering rickshaws and pedestrians like tenpins.
Our new bus was an old bluebird, but not the one of happiness. It had been waiting for us for over two hours. The anger of the passengers was palpable, most of it was directed to the owner of the company, who had pulled up in his white Hindustan Ambassador to inquire as to our progress. The man accompanying him boarded the bus, and indicated with a wrist wave that I was to surrender my seat. He became indignant when I refused, and turned to the besieged owner for reinforcement.
“My dear...” Was the opening gambit.
“Did you just call me ‘my dear’?” I asked.
“Oh yes, my dear. You see...” Was about as far as he got.
My response was more direct than our tickets had been. The other passengers laughed in approval. We headed out.
The hundred kilometers took four hours. We slowed to an idle, under a mango tree adorned with cotton ball egrets. The driver motioned for us to get off. It was in the middle of nowhere.
“Come on. Come on.” He told us that we were on the ‘outskirts’ of Pathankot. I told him I wanted to be inside the skirt, which tickled the salacious sensibilities of the other passengers. The standoff was resolved when I mentioned the Tourist Police in Delhi. We drove into the dark empty streets of sleeping Pathankot. The other passengers also disembarked, to ensure their own luggage did not depart with us. They waved as the bus drove off into the night, carrying the sky on its back.
A man's interest in a single bluebird is worth more than a complete but dry list of the fauna and flora of a town. But this town’s fauna got our interest in a hurry. Wild dogs. Packs of them, snarling, circling and hungry. And we were all out of Vegemite. I reached down for stones every few yards along the dusty street, fortunate that the main economy was based on stone crushing. It was just enough to keep them at bay until we turned the corner to find the sign for the Green Hotel.
“Welcome to the Fort of Pathans.” Bobbled the desk clerk, as he unlocked the door. “How many nights are you seeking?”
“One.” Was the cry of unity in unison.
“It is the loneliest number, is it not?” He said. The feral dogs sat watch outside, so we couldn’t escape.
“It should be enough.” I said.
In other places, at other times, the traveler’s imagination does the howling. But not outside the Green Hotel, in the powdered streets of Pathankot, at the Devils hour.
Sunday, 27 July 2014
“Traveling light is less easy as soon as affection is involved.”
E.M. Forster, Apti
On the morning we left Little Tibet, there were still about two hundred surviving snow leopards in the mountains around us, the only living mammals not lining up for the battered wooden coach to Srinagar. If my predawn breakfast had not consisted almost entirely of Imodium, I would have missed out as well.
Robyn and Julie tried to break all the iced pancake puddles on our blind trudge down to the waiting bus. I had only enough energy to carry my pack.
We watched the sun rise on the snowcaps and the face of Leh Palace, waiting for the Brits to finish their morning tea. The reason the sun never set on the British Empire was because God didn't trust the British in the dark.
Our bus had ‘Argosy’ emblazoned on the side. We were jubilant have a place on her, ecstatic when the engine turned over and the driver began his forward grind through the gears. The desert ribbon of the NH 1D was only passable for three months of the year, and we were riding down the middle of it. The traveler in the seat across the aisle handed me half of his two headed-earphones from a small contraption he had brought from France. I’d never seen anything like it. He called it a ‘Walkman.’ It played cassettes. He shoved one in its mouth and pressed a button.
“Telegraph Road.” He said. And my head filled up with a haunting.
“A long time ago came a man on a track
Walking thirty miles with a sack on his back...
Well just believe in me baby and I'll take you away
From out of this darkness and into the day...”
“Dire Straits.” He said. I looked out, over the edge of the mountains, and nodded. Buddhist stupas erupted like new teeth along the ridges.
We stopped at a military post, to have our passports checked. I looked down the lineup to see an Indian army major, with his red beret and handlebar moustache and swagger stick, sitting at a makeshift desk along a precipice. He worked his way methodically through the passengers. The Brit who had taken the longest to finish his tea that morning was ahead of me. He handed his black passport to the major, who thumbed through it repeatedly, growing more impatient with each pass.
“Biza.” He said. “Bear is your biza?” The Englishman was calmly condescending.
“My dear chap.” He said. “I don’t need a visa. We used to own this place.”
But this was not France. He went to the back of the line. Dire Straits in the Himalayas.
I bought some petrified peanuts, and we reboarded our bus for the dizzy climb up the yellow and mauve Zanskar mountain switchbacked moonscape. We shuddered and sputtered over the Fotu-La, the highest road pass in the world, over four thousand meters into the thin air. My French friend took his earphones back, and descended under a clothesline of multicolored prayer flags, to the Lamayuru Monastery, just below the summit. Our bus broke down, possibly in karmic punishment for not joining him. We all got off to push start the Argosy back into life. There wasn’t enough oxygen at that altitude for both of us, so we gave up ours in the resuscitation attempt. It would prove to be a recurring requirement.
An Indian army TATA convoy lay broken before us, stalled by the death of the weakest truck in the chain. We passed it on the outside, inches from the void. Eventually up and over the twelve thousand foot Namika-La, Argosy pulled into a heavily militarized Muslim town, just on dark.
Kargil was a crossroad haven of hustlers, its muddy main street mostly eateries and crashpads. We were pulled along with the other travelers to the dorm in the Chinese restaurant, but we had spotted something better, and made a break for it. Down on the green poplar banks of the gray Suru River was the three star International Hotel, where we secured a three bed room for 45 rupees. The roaring whitewater of the torrent outside seemed like it was flowing inside. When our shower wouldn’t work, the owner took an axe to it. It didn’t work any better after that. We secured our packs, and entered the cute ineptitude of the hotel restaurant. I knew I was starting to recover because my appetite had returned. I was ready to reengage. Until the menu arrived.
“What’s wrong, Wink?” Asked Robyn. “You look terrible.” I pointed to the first menu item. Semen Souply.
“Just order something else, mate.” Added Julie. I told her I needed to know, and motioned the waiter back to the table.
“What’s that?” I asked him, pointing to the entrée in question. He seemed only too happy to explain.
“Oh my.” He began. “That is Semen Souply.” He looked satisfied with his explanation. Robyn and Julie winced. I asked him what it was, specifically.
“We use only the finest semen.” He explained.
“I’m sure.” I said, and ordered the vegetable soup and omelette. We learned later that it was semolina soup, and that the owner was having trouble figuring out why it wasn’t a more popular menu choice. After his repair job on our shower, there was no courage to put him right.
For the first time in a week, I slept with a full belly, and without having to climb ladders. The white noise of the rapids outside our open window took me deep.
Sixteen years later, the big sleep I left here would be blown apart by the Kargil War, a Pakistani invasion attempt. Over just a few months, several thousand soldiers on both sides were killed, in battles on ridges overlooking NH 1D, the strategic Leh-Srinagar road we were travelling on. At one point, US intelligence had imaged Pakistan’s movement of nuclear weapons to forward deployments. Chiang Kai-shek used to attribute his good health to soup made from white doves. He had lived a long way from Kargil.