Friday, August 15, 2008

Baloo, Bug Spray and the Blackout

Monday morning we are sitting on the porch having tea when the woman from Mumbai walks past. She is half Scottish, half Gujarati, she tells us. Jonaki says her face looks familiar. She gets that a lot.

She tells us about an eight hour trek she and her husband are planning on taking later in the week. She goes to her cabin and gets out a large map with trails and elevations on it. A bus is going to drop them off with a big bunch of people on one end of this red line, then they are going to get picked up by a taxi on the other end of the red line. There’s eight hours of walking in-between, trusting that you’ll find the taxi when you’re done. This is more faith than I have, I believe.

She tells us about a second path we can take where you come to a stream, cross it and take a road to a temple. It’s about a two hour walk.

We talk about the dogs as they mill about. Baloo was Raju’s favorite, the woman from Mumbai says. She visited Raju’s two years ago and remembers this dog. He was the best trail guide; would never leave you for a hot scent or a shortcut. Too bad about the snow leopard.

Baloo was eaten by a snow leopard.

I thank the woman for showing us the map and recommending some treks. Never mind that she pretty much guaranteed that I will not leave Raju’s orchard. If the creepy stares and the “fatal vacation” warnings about white people disappearing aren’t enough, now there’s anecdotal evidence that I may be eaten by a wild cat. But it was nice to look at the map anyway.

We have our omelets and toast and share our parantas with Phoebe. As Kirin is bringing us more toast I ask him about the gun shots. Are people hunting out there, I wonder? “To scare the crows,” he says, then he explains something about chemicals. I think they don’t use chemicals on their produce, so they shoot guns to scare away the crows instead. I hope the guns also scare away the snow leopards while they’re at it.

After breakfast, we walk the hills through Raju’s orchard, past what we’ve now figured out is his barn. On the floor inside we can see a store of potatoes. Downstairs we see the tails of a pair of cows flicking. Just past the barn, the trail bends and is overtaken by a rushing stream. Yeti hops right through it and disappears into the slope on the other side. Jonaki and I stop. There’s a log and a large rock we can step on, but the log is wet and it looks like we’ll have to step into the water to get to the log anyway. Slip, slip, slip, I think. My other pair of shoes is still wet from yesterday’s rainy walk to town, and I can’t get my only dry footwear wet. I say we could take our shoes off and try to cross barefoot, but Jonaki isn’t interested. We turn back, calling the disappointed Yeti from his hopeful hike. He eventually obliges.

Jonaki thinks this mustn’t be the path that the woman from Mumbai described. There must be some other stream that’s easier to cross. She asks the people picking apples about this in Hindi as I walk ahead and photograph some flowers. They tell her that’s the path to the town and the temple. That’s the stream the woman was talking about crossing.

Instead of going back to the cottage, we take the path to town, surprising Yeti a bit when we don’t turn toward home. It’s about a kilometer. We get to town pretty quickly. When we arrive, I ask Jonaki what she wants to do next. She wants to turn around instead of walking through the town again. It seems whatever happened there yesterday with the laughing men really spooked her. It kind of spooks me, too, to see that she was so perturbed by the incident. I feel like a kid whose parent has just told her that yes, there is a monster in your closet. Jonaki’s supposed to be assuring me that we are safe. On this count, in this village, she seems unsure.

Still, I’m glad to be with a cautious travelling companion and not with the lady from Mumbai. Even though it’s threatening rain again, this intrepid couple is heading on the nine kilometer walk to the entrance of the Great Himalayan National Park over the wet rocks that make you go slip, slip, slip.

We mill around the school and Jonaki takes a few pictures of the gate. There are quotes painted in Hindi on it about learning and philosophy. I lean up against the wall of a vacant concrete building so the people in town can’t gawk so much at me. I think, I wouldn’t want to be followed back by anyone. I prefer not to be spotted at all. I’ll be stealthy, like a snow leopard.

Back safely at the cottage, the couple from Mumbai is sitting outside. The woman asks where we’re from. “I thought you were working in Delhi,” she tells me. I must have a Delhi vibe.

She is a designer by trade but she’s made a shift a few years ago to planning music festivals. Right now she’s working on planning Peter Gabriel’s world music festival in Goa.

The subject of landslides comes up. She likes them, she says. They can shut down the roads for two days at a time. She smiles. “It reminds you that you can’t control your life.”

But you can control your life, I think. You can avoid coming to places where you know there will be landslides. People have choices. Two days! If there is a landslide, I’m controlling the rocks right off the road, I think. I’m getting out of the vehicle and digging. How hard can it be?

Back at the room, I take a quick shower. There’s enough hot water to shampoo but not quite enough to condition. I have to really scramble to rinse the conditioner out of my hair while the water’s still lukewarm. I’ve figured out that there’s not enough hot water in the geezer to take a shower after Jonaki, so I’ll wait until it has a chance to replenish after her ablutions: after breakfast but before lunch. When we’re talking about the hot water, she mentions something about only filling the bucket half way. I’m confused for a second. There’s a big bucket in the bathroom. There’s one in the bathroom of my guest house too. I think that Indian people might not shower at all, but fill a bucket with hot water and then take a kind of sponge bath with it. There’s a lot of advertisement about water conservation. This must be another means.

After my shower, I go out onto the porch and douse myself in Deet. I don’t want any more necrosis and I certainly don’t want any of the mountain ticks helping themselves to my hemoglobin. Jonaki scrunches her nose at the bug spray. Yeti gets up off the porch and lays in the grass instead. “I’d rather be sprayed than ticked,” I tell Jonaki. A moment passes, then she asks me if I’ll spray her. Gladly, I say.

“You’re influencing me,” she tells me. I’m glad to be the American ambassador of bug spray.

Kirin comes nodding and we follow him off to the dining room. Lunch is a stack of hot, fresh chapattis that Kirin keeps replenishing from upstairs, a casserole dish of steaming hot rice, a dal of kidney beans, okra, and a tomato-based paneer (cheese) dish. There’s also a proper raita, according to Jonaki. This is a yogurt-based dish with coriander and tomatoes in it. I finally resist the urge to eat until I’m bursting. Bulbul comes into the dining area and passes out by the table. Dogs and cats regularly open doors here and enter where they please. A door will open and I’ll be looking up for a person and see nobody. Then I look down and see a tiny cat or a meandering dog. I offer Bulbul a bit of chapatti but she just snores. If Phoebe were here, she’d gobble this up, but my American friend is sleeping under the table on the porch by our room. That’s her spot.
The afternoon passes with more reading, more talking and more petting the dogs. Kirin brings tea and biscuits about four o’clock, then I ask him when it starts getting dark if I can check my email.

I should feel relief at getting the chance to correspond, but I instead find myself shaking, my stomach upset while I read the little notes from my mother and my husband. Instead of feeling connected, it is this moment when I feel their distance, their remoteness, especially when Internet Explorer crashes and my message fails to send. This is my only spider web thin, vulnerable connection to my family and it can be revoked without notice, without reason, without recourse. I finally get my message to send to Scott, but the unsettled feeling stays with me through dinner, even when I discover that Raju’s wife has created an homage to American comfort food of sorts, with pasta and mashed potatoes (and dal and chapattis, of course).

We are standing out by the fire pit after dinner when the power blinks on and off, then stays off. It’s an overcast night with many clouds and few stars. There is little moonlight. The whole valley is dark. Power cuts in the city last for a few minutes unless they announce a planned outage. This one feels different. No one is standing by ready to fix it. On the way to the cottage, Jonaki asked Raju about power cuts. He said they’re rare because the valley is powered hydroelectrically. This tells me something out of the ordinary has happened. I wonder if we’ll have power back before we depart, or if it will be days. As if I knew this would happen, my fear from before dinner is confirmed: with no power I have no email; with no email, no connection to the outside world. I am in the middle of the Himalayas, plunged into blackness.

I feel my way into our cabin and find my purse where I keep my little pink mag flashlight. Jonaki uses her cell phone to light her way.

We sit on the front porch petting Bulbul and Phoebe until we’re sleepy. Jonaki walks into the back room by the river where she sleeps. Perhaps sensing my unease, Bulbul follows me into my room and lays down at the side of my bed. She will sleep with me tonight so I don’t feel so alone, so covered in darkness. The world is okay when there’s a sweet, peaceful dog at the foot of your bed.

I sleep with the light switch turned to on so I'll know when the power comes back on. I am not awakened by any illumination.


It's me mom said...

Baloo got eaten by a snow leopard!!! and you laughed at me when I told you to be careful and not get eaten by a snow leopard.

Hey, where are your rubber shoes?
They would've been great for crossing that stream.

Now I can't wait to see if that couple finished their 8 hr. hike.


Vicki said...

I keep forgetting to tell you, I totally wore your rubber shoes to go hiking, and they were great! I just couldn't walk through the stream with them because I had to wear socks so I didn't get any rashes from the plants. I'd been warned about that. Anyway, your shoes had quite the adventure! =)