Thursday, August 14, 2008


Jonaki is able to get in touch with Raju using her cell phone at our morning stop. He will send someone into Aut to be there for us when the bus stops. We tell him the bus number so he can find it.

Back on the bus, I see what Jonaki was talking about. The roads are good, but we are twisting up and down the sides of mountains with precipitous drops just a few feet from the highway. Still, I don’t panic. I breath deeply and trust our bus driver. He is cautious, not passing or taking any turns too quickly.

Right after driving through India’s longest tunnel, which takes us square through an entire giant mountain, we approach Aut. We are the only ones getting off here, and Jonaki seems anxious that they don’t fly past without letting us disembark. We have our bags collected and are standing at the front of the bus before it even slows.

The bus driver’s assistant takes my suitcase out and another very skinny man grabs it before I can even take it. This is Raju himself, spiriting us away to his tiny car. He rolls down both windows. The air is sweet and cool and feels good as it hits my face. He takes us right through the tunnel again and I try not to feel claustrophobic. At least this second time, I know the tunnel has an end. The first time, I was wondering.

I brace myself for this leg of the journey. “Travelers to this area need to make sure their insurance covers emergency helicopter evacuations,” my guidebook’s words echo back to me. I am pleased to see that the roads are not made of mud, but are actual roads. I am further pleased when I realize what Anindo said was true; we are driving into a valley, not the peak of a mountain, so the precipitous drop offs we saw while we were on the bus are not present here.

But the road isn’t exactly smooth. It’s rocky and bumpy. Here, again, I am thankful to have a driver with good judgment. He doesn’t fly around any corners or whiz past any trucks we come upon the way a Delhi driver would.

“Are you okay?” Jonaki asks me. I must look a bit white—well, whiter than usual.

“I’m fine,” I say, and it comes out in a whisper. I realize this may not be very convincing. I try again. “I didn’t mean to whisper. It’s just so bumpy that I didn’t want to yell.” This is lame as well. Let’s face it, I’m a bit scared, but not so scared that my heart is in my throat, beating so it looks like it will leap forth from my kurta. Not so scared that I need medication to calm me down the way I have so many times in the past for no good reason. “I’m fine,” I say again. And I really am.

There are about three places in which the road is covered in mud. Raju downshifts and takes us right through with no problem. We run into a little traffic jam in one of the villages where some trucks have parked between the shops blocking the narrow roadway. Raju throws the car in reverse and takes a high road around the village instead. We reach his cottage in about an hour, but the adventure continues. He parks on the side of the highway and takes our bags down to the rocky bank of the Tirthan River for us. Stretched across the rapids is a cable with a small cart on it. This is how we must get to the cottage. A man waits on the far side of the river to help pull the cart along the pulley system. Jonaki goes first. She starts to climb in to the little cart, but Raju says, “Legs out.” She sits down, her backpack next to her, her short legs sticking up out of the cart. Raju gives her a push and she’s off. I take out my camera. I may as well enjoy this. Raju looks at me. He knows I’ve been frightened because Jonaki’s told him about her American friend who is worried about the roads. “Is very safe,” he tells me.

Before I can think to be polite about it, I laugh. “Very safe; I don’t know,” I say. But I stow my camera back in my purse and climb in once the cart is sent back, newspapers spread out under me to keep from getting wet. Raju gives me a push, and it does feel strangely safe, like a very tame amusement park ride. It’s actually fun, and once I reach the opposite river bank, I wish the ride would have lasted a little longer. I wish I’d gotten a picture from mid-river. It’s beautiful with clear water rushing over huge rocks.

Raju is the last to come over. He rides with my huge, heavy suitcase. I feel like such a lame, chicken American, but then I think, “Hey, how many lame, chicken Americans make it all the way out here? Not many.” I may be the only one, in fact. So even if I’m a little trepidacious, I’m here, and that’s saying something. Being such a rare species in these parts, I do have a feeling of being something of an ambassador. I feel like I will fix the picture of what an American is like for Raju and his family. It’s a little bit of pressure. Already he thinks I’m scared of everything—and he’s right.

On the other side of the river and safely onto the bank, I realize I did it. I got here. I survived, even without the help of medication. I was able to do this—not me and some pills for anxiety. Just me.

“You see these trees,” Jonaki asks me. “If you cut one of them down here, it’s like murder, and you go to prison for life. They believe each tree has a spirit in this state.” Mental note: do not chop down any trees while vacationing here. Hide my computer power cord on the way home, and do not chop down any trees. I wonder where all the wood came from that built the cottage. Jonaki says it’s not every tree; just a certain kind of tree that’s protected.

We climb from the river bank up to the wooden cottage and see a litter of kittens and several dogs. These are Raju’s dogs. He has four: Yeti, Bulbul, Phoebe and Tommy, who isn’t really his dog, but showed up here in September and didn’t leave. Bulbul, the blonde female dog with sad eyes, approaches him and he grabs her face and kisses her, talking to her affectionately in Hindi. Raju seems like an okay guy. A good driver, and an okay guy.

He shows us our room. It’s actually two rooms with three beds. He shows us how the hot water works. We have to turn on the “geezer” and let the water heat up. In America, geezers are old men, and you certainly don’t want to turn them on. I don’t mention this little cultural difference. I’ll leave that distinction to Raju’s next American visitor.

Raju walks us outside to where the trail leads away from the cottage. “You can walk to Gushaini from here,” he says. “Just up and take a left, then another left.” Jonaki told me Raju said he was going to test out his English on me. He’s doing pretty well. “The dogs will go with you,” he says.

We thank him and walk back to our room to settle in. Jonaki tries to plug in her camera to charge it, but the outlet isn’t working. We find a second outlet in the room, but the face of this one is screwed on crooked and the plug won’t even go in. The lights work in the room, so there is electricity. There is just no way to charge our electronics. I think of my blog and how it will really test me to have to write everything long hand. I am not so patient and my handwriting has really suffered since I’ve had a laptop. The only writing I usually do is to take notes in meetings and to sign my name when I have to. India has changed that a little. I’ve filled up more than half a notebook while I’ve been here for one reason or another. I figure in a pinch, my notebook will have to suffice.

We each try our cell phones. Jonaki first, then me. We each find that there are no bars. I wasn’t counting on my cell phone working, but I’m still disappointed when it doesn’t. I need a way of getting in touch with my family to let them know I’ve arrived safely, especially after scaring the crap out of them with my talk of landslides and soft roads and bridges going out. I feel a little sick.

Another skinny but young man gently knocks on our door. “Breakfast,” he says, then leads us off toward the other branch of the L-shaped cottage. This is Kirin, Raju’s son. Breakfast is an omelet with tomato, coriander and real onion in it. There is also toast with what appears to be an assortment of homemade jellies on the table. And parantas: a flat bread stuffed with potato and coriander. And yogurt. And two kinds of juice: plum and apple. And water bottled in the Himalayas about an hour from where we are staying. This is all brought to the table by the quiet Kirin. He runs up and down the stairs, dishes in hand, bowing his head with each new delivery. Raju walks through the kitchen and Jonaki asks him in Hindi about a small pitcher of milk sitting in front of her. After he replies back in Hindi, Jonaki explains, “It’s from his cow, right there.” She points out the window behind us. The normal worrying you have to do about sewage in the water is not applicable here. Here, there are other worries, like militants in the mountains that like to capture westerners to make examples of them. The guidebook said that has happened a few dozen times in the Kullu Valley since 1990. We are in the neighboring Tirthan Valley, but I figure the militants may not respect the boundaries of their criminality set forth by Lonely Planet.

I sneak a piece of my paranta under the table to a white dog with sad eyes. Raju winks at me. It’s okay to share.

Jonaki asks Raju if she can use his cell phone to call her father. She dials him up and lets him know she’s arrived here safely. I am jealous. I use the cell phone to call Julianne. I’d emailed her before I left and asked that if I couldn’t call America from Raju’s, would she be able to send an email for me? She emailed me back almost immediately and said she’d be happy to help. Julianne doesn’t pick up her phone, and there is no voice mail, so I still have no way of letting anyone know I’m here okay.

Jonaki says we could call her father back. He could send the email for me. We call her dad. He agrees to send the email, but not until later. His power is out. It should be back by two in the afternoon. That’s three thirty in the morning in Chicago and Iowa, but it’s the best I can do at the moment. We give him Scott’s work email address and hope for the best. I feel so unsettled not being able to talk to anyone.

After breakfast, there’s a litter of kittens and some mama cats outside the kitchen door. I pet them and Raju watches, smiling, standing back and talking to Jonaki in Hindu.

We walk back to our room and Jonaki decides to take a shower. I stay outside and watch the baby cats wrestle each other and attack their mama cats’ tails as they jump on and off of the benches around the fire pit. One mature cat comes down the walk howling with a mouthful of bug. A baby pounces up and carries it off to eat it under a bench. I think about an hour passes and Jonaki emerges from the cabin, refreshed. “It’s nice,” she says. I should take a shower too. There’s still hot water. She just used some when she was brushing her teeth.

A shower sounds like a good idea, especially after an all night bus ride—even if I was completely unconscious the whole time. The shower is interesting. There’s no shower stall or curtain: just a head that comes out of the wall and a drain in the stone floor underneath it. I turn on the water and it comes out cold, then warm. It seems there is still hot water. I stick my clothes up high on a shelf where I think they will stay dry, and get myself wet. Just as I begin to lather up my hair, the water goes cold. Ice cold. I put my head into the stream to try to get the shampoo suds out of it and accidentally inhale some of the water from the shock of the cold. I wonder if this will make me ill, and I spit it out as best I can.

With teeth chattering, I towel off and tears run down my face. I should not have come here. I can’t even get in touch with my family to let them know I’m not dead, and they are the reason I’m living. Life is meaningless without the people I love, and I just keep taking myself farther and farther away from them. What if they’re not there when I get back? What if something terrible has happened and I don’t know about it? I will never forgive myself. “Stupid fucking cold shower,” I curse and cry. How will I ever make it to Wednesday? Why did I come here?

I take some more deep breaths and get dressed. Outside, I dig into my backpack for my clock. It says 7:42. I know it’s not 7:42. It’s probably closer to ten or eleven o’clock in the morning. I punch buttons the way I did the last time when I reset it, but it seems to be stuck in some kind of stopwatch mode. I try to take the battery out, thinking that might reset it completely, but the battery cover is stuck on. Jonaki is sitting on the porch outside. She hears all the beeping.

“What are you doing?” she asks.

I tell her about my clock, but not about being lost without time, not about my deep grief at not being able to be in touch with my family. I feel like I’m at the wrong end of a telescope, everything is so small and far away and fish-eyed.

Jonaki pries off the battery cover and I take out the battery. Popping it back in, I see that this didn’t fix the problem anyway. I am once again without a clock, without time, without a point of reference, without a way to tell my family I am okay, in the middle of the Himalayas. And I knew this might happen. It’s my fault. I try to guess the hours until two o’clock when the email message will at least be sent, but then put it together that it’s Saturday. Scott won’t get an email sent to his work address until Monday. I hope that Raju shows up again with his phone so I can try Julianne. If I can get in touch with her, maybe I can even have her Skype Scott or my mom. At the very least, I can have her use my mom’s Yahoo email which she checks everyday. But Raju isn’t around. He’s gone to town. There is no phone.

We decide to check out the trail that Raju showed us. Yeti, the aptly-named white, hairy dog, perks up his ears, whimpers from excitement and runs ahead, showing us the way. We follow him up the steep hillside past apple trees, pear trees and aaru trees, all full of fruit. The view of the river below and the mountaintops dusted with clouds is stunning. I snap picture after picture. Suddenly, we come upon a goat, then three more, then a whole bunch of goats being tended by a dark-skinned boy who looks to be about thirteen. The goats block the path, and Yeti stops, telling us to wait. He sits patiently, ears pricked, watching the goatherd and his flock. The goatherd whistles and the goats jump down from the slope where they are grazing. They follow him down the path, except for two stragglers. One stays behind and stares down Yeti, who pounds his two front paws into the dirt trail as if to say, “Try me.” The goat, who has large horns, pounds his front feet in reprisal. Yeti, unassuaged, tries it again. I am suddenly afraid our trail guide will be gored by a goat. Do goats gore? This one certainly looks like it could. But Yeti has faced him down. He turns and trots off toward the flock, followed by the only other goat that had stayed behind. Yeti lets the group get a good distance ahead of us, then leads us along the path after them.

At one point, he veers off toward the river and pauses for a drink. We do not partake, but patiently await our guide, who quickly resumes our expedition. The trees clear and open onto a series of crumbling buildings with laundry hanging up in them on the opposite side of the stony river. We are standing next to a brick building with open spaces where doors and windows should be. It looks to me almost like it’s been bombed. “This is the school,” Jonaki says, having read a sign in Hindi that explains as much. A blue bridge sways on thick cables. Yeti gallops onto it and we follow him to the opposite side of the river, where the village of Gushaini sits. People carrying large baskets on their backs stare at me. We turn right and walk a few hundred feet away from town instead of into it, where there will be fewer intimidating gazes. I point at a pulley system like the one we rode across the river, only this one goes straight up the side of the mountain, thousands of feet. Jonaki sees a temple at the top of the pulley and asks a woman in rags about the metallic silver structure with twisting corners peeking out of the pine trees surrounding it. It’s a temple for Durga, goddess of strength, she tells me after a brief Hindi exchange.

We start to walk back toward the bridge when a pair of large dogs approaches us. One of them jumps up onto me. They’re friendly, but full of ticks. We yell to Yeti to lead us back home. Yeti runs back toward the blue cable bridge and we follow behind, trying to shake the town dogs. I mention again how I am confused by the contradiction of female worship and female objectification. Jonaki and I have talked a lot about gender roles in India over the past day and a half.

As we walk toward the cottage down the narrow path, I try to find a rock for my mother. I tell Jonaki I’ve brought back rocks from Versailles and from London and from the Rocky Mountains for my mother’s garden. The rocks here, I notice, aren’t very colorful. Jonaki, whose father is a geologist, says they’re mostly limestone and shale.

I tell Jonaki about the rocks in the Rockies. There’s quartz and granite. They’re pink and aqua and black and green and clear like crystal. They’re beautiful. I select a white rock for my mother and two small pieces of something that looks vaguely metallic. Mica, Jonaki says. The valley we’re in doesn’t have any mountains above the frost line, so it’s just all green, which is pretty, but I was also hoping for some snowy peaks, like I remember from my last trip to Colorado. I decide in my head that the Rockies are better than the Himalayas, but then I tell myself, no, the Rockies are just different than the Himalayas. I must find the beauty here too. A different kind of beauty.

We have lost Yeti in our pause to consider the geology of our surroundings. At least it’s a simple path back to the cottage.

When we arrive at the clearing, Yeti is sitting there panting, waiting for us. He must have taken some short cut back because the last time I remember seeing him, he was actually behind us on the trail. Jonaki goes inside for a nap and I sit, restless, on the front porch, taking notes in my journal. I don’t want to wear out the battery in my laptop. I don’t know why. In case of some kind of indeterminate emergency, I guess; a Himalayan emergency during which I’ll need swift access to Microsoft Word. I have this way of hording. I won’t eat the cookies I love because I’m saving them. Instead I’ll let them get stale and inedible. I won’t use the computer to write because I can’t recharge the battery. Instead I’ll drive myself crazy with my shaky handwriting.

It’s not long before Kirin comes by again, bowing his head, this time saying “Lunch.”

I wake Jonaki and we walk back to the kitchen followed by the odd dog and cat. Lunch is a banquet; bowl after bowl of food. There’s cauliflower subzi, a lentil dish, fresh chapattis, jasmine-smelling rice and a chicken curry. The brown dog loves the chapattis that I share with her, and I notice that she has little stubs for teeth, except for her fangs. Other than this, though, she is in good shape; a refreshing change from the poor, skinny dogs full of sores I see in the Delhi streets.

After lunch, we take a second, shorter walk, this time turning right, away from the village and following the trail to a dilapidated shack. Do people live here? Who does it belong to? Will they be unhappy to have visitors on the trail behind their house? This time, the black lab-looking dog and the brown dog come with us. These dogs are slower, taking lots of pauses to sniff and tinkle along the way. Jonaki doesn’t like the black dog. “Have you read ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles’?” she asks me. “This dog is like that.”

I laugh. Poor black dog. He does seem a little rougher around the edges than the other dogs. And he does have a sore on his head. And I think I saw some ticks on him too. He is a brute, but his eyes are absolutely full of love.

These dogs stick with us on the way back to the cottage. We arrive back through the thick flowers and I suggest we walk down to the river bank where we rode the pulley cart. It was gorgeous down there. A blonde dog follows us down the irregular stone stepping path. I throw rocks into the river, trying to hit the cart suspended above it and missing every time. Jonaki wants to go back to the room. I’ll meet her back there. I’ll stay behind and sit here with the blonde dog for a while.

I throw a few more rocks and listen to the rushing sound of the water. I think again of my family and how if something happened, I wouldn’t know about it for a week because they have no way of getting in touch with me. Jonaki has told me about losing her mother about two years ago. This has been an abiding fear of mine since both my mother’s siblings died in quick succession of sudden heart problems a few years ago. I’ll cry again. That will help. I come close, but suddenly stop myself. “Look,” I tell myself, “You are here. This is the choice you made.”

“I know,” I reply. “It’s like a jail sentence.” I count the days and estimate the hours until I will be set free. I think of prisoners in their cells making hatch marks on the walls, anticipating their release. Then I grow angry.

“When will you learn to be where you are, instead of always wanting to be someplace else? Be where you are. Be where you are! You are in the Himalayas. You will never be here again. Look at these rocks, this sky, this clear water. Pet this sweet dog. Smell this perfumed air. See these swirling clouds lighting on the pine peaks that part the horizon.

Yes, you are right. There is no escape. You are here for the next several days. There is no radio, no newspaper, no tv, no Internet. You are alone with yourself. So you can hate yourself, or you can love yourself. You can be here, or you can spend the whole time wishing you were somewhere else, with someone else. You can be miserable or you can enjoy yourself.

You can enjoy yourself. Can’t you?

Can’t you?”

The question strikes me. If I can’t enjoy being with myself, why would anyone else ever enjoy being with me?

I answer defiantly, “Yes. Yes, I can enjoy myself. Of course I can.” And I’ll find some way of getting in touch with my family and getting them in touch with me. I know there’s an email already sent. That’s something.

I climb up the rock path and find Jonaki wandering around the grounds. She’s found a little veranda on the opposite side of the cottage. It overlooks the river. It’s a nice place to sit. We talk about how hard it is to get proper exercise in India. She says she joined a gym a while back but stopped going. I understand why, when you work until six o’clock p.m. on an early night and the traffic snarls take hours. There is no time.

Inside the room that this veranda sits beside, Jonaki spies a phone. A land line. Maybe I can use this phone to call my family, she suggests. I appreciate her thinking of my predicament. She is a considerate and agreeable travelling companion.

It grows dark and we return to the porch outside our room, where Kirin finds us to announce dinner. I ask him if there’s any way I can make an international phone call. “No,” he says, “but there’s Internet. Email.”

“There is?”

I feel like I’ve just learned that they’re keeping God inside a tiny jewelry box in a hidden room of the cottage.

“Can I use it? Can I check my email?” I think maybe I’ve heard him wrong. He nods for me to follow him up a wooden staircase into a room with a computer set up in it. He hits the power and the machine clunks to life.

“It will take some time,” Kirin tells me. And it does. But eventually, I am able to access my Yahoo email account and to tell my mother and husband that I have arrived safely and to let them know that they can get in touch with me by sending me Yahoo email which I’ll be able to check daily while I’m here. I also email Julianne and ask if it’s okay that I give her phone number to my family so that in the case of an emergency, they can call her and she can call me.

I am so thankful and still in disbelief that in the remote Himalayas I’m able to stay in touch with my family via email.
I'm just finishing up my love notes when Kirin comes nodding once again. "Dinner."

1 comment:

It's me mom said...

I feel like I’ve just learned that they’re keeping God inside a tiny jewelry box in a hidden room of the cottage.

I thought this was priceless. I loved your latest entries, especially the different cultural meaning for "geezers" and not wanting to turn them on.
I'm so happy you're back and safe.
Love you