Wednesday, May 16, 2007

'homely stay in a beautiful natural location'

For most tourists and pilgrims, Uttarkashi is a stopover town on the way to one of the four sources of the Ganga River. We ended up staying there for two nights, mostly because I couldn't decide what to do next (yes, the indecision of being a Libra has followed me to India) and because Uri wanted to buy some essentials before going off on a week-long trek. I decided to join Uri on the trek to Dodi Tal, which according to Indian mythology, is the lake where Shiva cut off Ganesha's head and replaced it with that of an elephant.

Orian headed off to Srinigar, Rachel stayed in Uttarkashi, and Uri and I took the 8:45 local bus (which left at 9:20) to a small town called Sagnam Chatti, about one hour northwest of Uttarkashi. The bus was crowded, as usual, with people piled three to a two-seater, four to a three-seater, and scores more hanging in the aisle. When we arrived in Sagnam Chatti, at the end of the line, we were met with the usual, "Hello, you want guide?" We didn't, so we crossed the short bridge to the foot of the trail, where I traded my sandals for trekking shoes. A European couple walked by us, their backs straight and tall, wearing hard-core hiking boots and carrying obviously well-packed bags. I continued to tie my shoes.

On many of these treks in the western Himalaya, the beginning is often the steepest part. Uttarkashi is about 1880 meteres high, and according to the map, we would have reached 3000 meters by the time we arrived at Dodi Tal. Up, up we walked, past the brushes of stinging nettle and cannabis, into the dense forest.

About half an hour into the hike, we heard a voice calling to us. We looked up and saw nothing. There it was again, the voice. We looked up again, and saw, behind a rock, a face. The face also had a hand, which summoned us. We looked at each other, and decided to go. The voice, the face and the hand also had a body, that of a toothless woman lounging behind the rock, next to another woman, a young girl, an older man and a teenaged boy. "Chocolate?" they requested, holding out their hands. "No chocolate," we said, but we did have a few packages of Parle-G biscuits, one of which we gave to the toothless woman to keep. We opened another package and shared it with them. They were from the village of Agora, 8 km up the trail, and had come down to cut branches to bring back to their village.

After the snack, we continued on the trail, which was so unlike the trail to Gomuk. To begin with, the ascent was much easier on my lungs. Maybe this was because my body was more acclimatized, or maybe because there is so much more oxyegn in the forest than in the desert-like atmosphere of the way to Gomuk. Also, there were no chai shops on the way up the trail. There was, however, a sign for a guest house in Agora boasting "a homely stay in a beautiful natural location." I hope they meant homey.

Agora, which we reached about two hours later, was in fact a beautiful natural location, but seeing how early in the day it was, we decided to continue on to the next village, Bebra, to spend shabbat. We did stop in Agora long enough to eat lunch and watch the rainclouds gather above us.

By the time we arrived in Bebra, the daily rain had poured, lightly. We paid the 10 rupees to the forest guard, who then accompanied us to the nearest dhaba / chai shop. The dhaba owner asked us to stay in his guest house, which, upon closer inspection, was as unappetizing as it appeared at first sight. "Is there another guest house here?" I asked. The dhaba owner and the forest guard both vehemently shook their heads at me. Uri gave me a disappointed look. "Wrong queston," he told me.

We continued on, about 100 meters, where we found another guest house, this one much more homey and much less homley than the last. The European couple, who turned out to be as Swiss as they looked, had already set up their tent on the grass behind the stone house. We took a room, and then joined the couple (Peter and Miriam), who were trying out their Indian camping stove for the first time in an attempt to make lemon ginger tea. Chandara Lal (the guest house owner) and his "woman" Bindra joined us for tea, and asked us when we wanted to eat dinner.

The rest of the afternoon we lounged and wrote, looking out at the forest and the stream, as buffalo and cows and horses and children strolled by us. Agora is a small village. Bebra is a very, very, very small village. As night fell, I went off down the trail to sing kabbalat shabbat. For the first time I began to feel deeply the peace and quiet I have been looking for since I arrived in India. It is an amazing place to let go, to really rest.

Sunday morning, we continued our trek to Dodi Tal, which is only about 16 kilometers from Bebra. On the way, we passed through another small village called Mahji, bigger than Bebra but smaller than Agora and much less developed than either. We stopped for chai, looking at the clouds above us. "It won't last," I said, now an expert on Uttaranchal weather. "It'll rain for a couple of hours and then clear."

Well, the rain began as we began the hardest ascent to Dodi Tal. By rain, of course, I mean hail. And by hail, I mean hail.

When we arrived in Dodi Tal we were soaking wet and freezing. The Europeans, Swiss as they are, were in much better shape than we were. My shoes were entirely soaked through, as were my pants. We crowded around a fire where about 10 Indians sat warming their hands. The majority of said Indians, we learned, were managers and factory operators from India's largest company, Tata. They were in Dodi Tal for adventure-training / team-building, and they were very funny. I don't know how else to characterize them. One of them, a skinny man with a disproportionately small head, asked us to pose with his colleagues for a picture, so we did.

Uri and I ended up spending the night in a dhaba run by a 17-year-old boy named Moskesh and his 14-year-old brother Bipin, who made us dinner and fed us chai, and set up warm blankets for us on the floor.

The next morning we awoke at quarter to 6 with the Tata adventure-trainers and climbed up to Darwa pass with them. Well, not really with them, since they are all much older than we are and much slower. We began the ascent with them (1,000 meters over 6 kilometers) and met them again on the way down. By the time we arrived at the pass, after walking on snow up a slippery slope, we found ourselves literally inside the day's raincloud. Peter and Miriam, the Swiss mountaineers, scurried up to the summit in their state-of-the-art hiking boots, but I didn't really feel the need. I was standing in the middle of a cloud, 4,000 meters high. That was good enough for me.

We were back in Dodi Tal by noon, exhausted from the already full day. I went to sit by the lake, to sort out the many thoughts and realizations I had reached while slipping down the wet trail.

We spent the night with Mokesh and Bipin in their dhaba again. This time, though, as we set to sleep at around 9 P.M., we found ourselves in the midst of a Hindi sing-along. About 20 loud friends from Delhi had crowded into the dhaba for a late dinner, and paid no mind to our attempt to sleep. "If this had happened an hour ago, it would have been great," Uri said. "It's still great," I said, and fell asleep.

The next morning, at around 5:30, Uri went back up to Darwa pass, where he planned to continue on to another town, two days down then trail, and then to Yamnotri, one of the char dham (sources of the Ganga.) Peter and Miriam came in for a chai about half an hour later, and then continued after Uri. At about quarter to 7, I gathered my things and began my trail back down to Bebra.

Before I left Dodi Tal, Mokesh asked where I was going to stay in Bebra. "My grandfather has a guest house there," he told me. "Well, I stayed at Chandara's before," I told him. Mokesh wrinkled his nose. "Chandara Lal? No good."

"Why no good?" I said, laughing. "You mean good, but not your grandfather?"

"No," he said, seriously. "He is very low civil caste."

I didn't really know how to respond. The caste system is not something I truly understand, and it is not my way of determining who is good or not.

I said goodbye to Mokesh and Bipin, and all of the other Dodi Tal friends, and found myself back on the trail, this time alone. The night before I had realized that, as wonderful as the friends I have made are, and as enjoyable as it has been to share these experiences, I needed to spend time by myself, to have the alone time I have been craving for so long.

At first, as I found myself inside of the dense forest, I was a little scared (mostly of whether or not to tell my mother. Hi Mom.) There I was, alone, on a trail in the forest, with only my thoughts to accompany me. It was then, amid deep thoughts and vivid scenery, that I realized. I was not alone. There on the trail with me were millions and trillions of living organisms, trees and plants and herbs and bugs and animals, all experiencing the early dawn with me.

I was like Dorothy, but without a tin man, or a lion, or a scarecrow. And no Toto. Obstacles arose and I met them, crossing rocks over streams, difficult ascents, slippery paths, the whole while looking around me and within me.

As I walked on, I saw something in front of me, long and slim, slithering on what looked like a big white rock. My heart jumped. A snake? How would Dorothy deal with this situation? How would Jack Kerouac? I walked slower, and then noticed that it wasn't a snake at all, it was a tail, a long graceful tail belonging to a lazy cow.

I stopped for a water and biscuit break along the way, on a rock near a stream. It was there the bees came out, one at first, and then two, and then I stood up and heard them buzzing all around me, either in mind or in reality. Two of them nestled onto my backpack, which I had slung on a rock. I paced, unsure of what to do, as the bees buzzed on bag. Finally I dumped my water bottle onto the bag, and the bees flew away. I grabbed my bag and continued down the trail.

On I went, through Mahji with its beautiful children, down the trail, through the forest. I ran out of water about 5 km away from Bebra. About two kilometers later I heard the giggling voics of wood nymphs, who turnd out to be three young women, under 30, all beautiful, all missing multiple teeth. One of them stuck out their hand and said, "toffee?" 'Toffee?' I thought, and shook my head. "Pani?" they said, arms still outstretched. I showed them my empty water bottle, and gave them what was left of my biscuits. They insisted on posing for a photo with the biscuits in their hands, perched in front of their toothless mouths.

I stopped at the first water spout I saw, just outside Bebra, and stuck my head under the flowing water. The women from the trail passed by me as I sat there, their baskets filled with the branches and leaves they had collected along the way.

I arrived in Bebra a little while later. Chandara and his son were in their dhaba, and seemed glad to see me. They offered me chai and food, and I sat around with them for hours, helping with their wood carvings and relaxing. The food they served me was just what we'd had on shabbat: rice, dahl and fern, which is quite possibly the strangest vegetable I have ever had. A fly died in my chai, more than once, but I just spilled it out each time and graciously accepted another.

The Tata team, who left Dodi Tal half an hour after I did and arrived in Bebra two and a half hours after I did, were staying at Mokesh's granfather's guest house for the night. The team leaders had organized a night of Garhwali song and dance for them, which was really an amazing experience. I sat next to Jasmila, Chandara's young daughter with whom I had developed a special relationship despite our complete lack of shared language. Looking around me, I realized I was the only foreigner there. It was a nice feeling. Later on, I got some advice on good treks in Himachal Pradesh from one of the guides, a Nepali whose father climbed Everest twice without oxygen and "expired" on his third attempt.

The next morning, early, I headed back down to Sagnam Chatti, taking my time to complete the 10 km. The Tata crew left at around the same time as me, and we were accompanied by the children of Agora, who walk up and down the trail to school every day.

I reached Sagnam Chatti about an hour and a half (and a total of 60 km) later, just in time to catch the bus back to Uttarkashi. I spent a few hours by the Ganga and then got on a bus, planning to go to Dehra Dun. I decided to get off in Rishikesh instead, where I am now. Tomorrow, Dharamsala.

No comments: