Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Understanding Abby

Let there be no ambiguity: rupture is imminent. The bladder is about to burst. Our trusty water bottle, hard working and completely reliable, until now, is about to undergo a leaky death. A tear has appeared in its side, a chink in its armour, and its working its way closer and closer to the soft vulnerable inner flesh where water is held.

The question is, how to deal with it.

Abby and I were both sitting in bed this afternoon, relaxing after our trek, reading our respective books. I raced breathlessly through the final pages of my murder mystery, pretending I hadn't figured out the plot 200 pages previous. I set it aside, and decided to snuggle with my wife. She's reading a real novel, by Edward Abby, and looked like she needed some comforting. Or some caressing - he is a fairly sexual guy... As I rolled towards her, her radar went off, and her attention, until now so completely engrossed by her book, was suddenly turned to the emergency at hand.

"Stop!", she cried.
"Be careful of the water bottle! It's about to break and spill water all over the bed." She gave me a look like I had just peed all over the toilet seat, deliberately.

I peeked down from my frozen half-turn and saw the water bottle, innocent and oblivious, lying casually next to Abby's legs. She gave me a look of satisfaction, happy to have gotten through, and went back to her reading. I was left to ponder how to snuggle with my wife without making her angry while staying true to my stance that the bottle of water was no immediate threat. I also had to make sure to stay on the water bottle's good side; it was, after all, about to burst. As I pondered how to not pander, it occurred to me that Abby and I had completely different approaches to the soon-to-be-ruptured bladder.

To my way of thinking, there was no thinking. We'd had the thing for months. It was tough as nails. I'd dropped it, poked it, folded it, unfolded it, filled it, emptied it, dozens of times, each, with not a single problem. It hadn't once leaked, not even a drop, and when it eventually did, we'd deal with it. Besides, it was guaranteed. If it broke, we'd bring it back for a free replacement.

To Abby's way of thinking, the water bottle represented a dark, malicious, serious, and dangerous threat. It was liable to go off, at any second, and when it did, it wasn't going to be pretty. It needed to be watched, monitored, kept under tight surveillance at all times. A single moment of laxity could result in complete disaster. Since I first discovered the leak almost a week back, I don't think a second has passed where some part of her brain, on some level, has been on "Water Bottle Alert: Code Red". Where is it now? What's it doing? Has the rip gotten bigger? Can it reach any of my stuff? Her worry center has been put on call, and the only way to calm it, to placate it, to allow it to relax, is to resolve the issue.

Except she'd never do that. Instead, she makes herself continually aware of the despicable demon's whereabouts and intentions, and carefully plots how to be least affected when the inevitable occurs. This way of thinking frustrates my way of thinking to no end. If I were her, and thought as she does, there would be three options.

1. Shoot the damn thing. Put it out of its misery. End the suspense. Cut the tension. No almost-broken water bottle, no almost-wetted bed. Most importantly, no source of worry.

2. Actively alter reality. Move the water bottle. Instead of keeping one eye nervously on it for the next day, week, month (year? It's Reliable, and Dependable...), do something about it. Physically pick it up and place it on the floor, out of harm's way, where it can burst to its heart's delight with no ill effects. Better yet, refer to Option 1.

3. Make ME do something about it. That's what husbands are for. The water bottle has been my responsibility for months now, and until the cursed tear was discovered, the arrangement seemed to be working out very well. Since "The Tear", however, her faith in my water bottle management skills seems to have been entirely eroded. In her eyes, I can no longer be trusted to do "whats' right" with our leaky friend. No more does she believe my claims that the wondrous receptacle can change water to wine, can miraculously survive falls of thousands of metres, unscathed. The water bottle has lost its magic. That said, she also hasn't been willing to make any demands of me, to ask for specific changes in said faith-uninspiring water bottle management skills, to admit she no longer has the trust. "Please keep the almost ruptured water bottle off the bed", or perhaps "Please keep the accident waiting-to-happen away from my stuff". Instead, it's the eye, always the eye.

I suppose the issue might just be that she wants to worry. She gets it honestly: her mother worries incessantly, and the gene seems to have been passed on. Regardless, it baffles me. Isn't NOT worrying better than worrying? Isn't the absence of stress preferable to its presence? I always thought so, but maybe I was wrong. Well, maybe not wrong, more likely just misinformed. What if-

I decided not to worry about it.

The issue resolved to my satisfaction, I carefully completed my rollover, taking care to avoid the twitchy-trigger-finger water balloon, and successfully napped on my beautiful wife's shoulder. As my eyes were closed, I wasn't able to see how she dealt with it, but we all escaped unscathed.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Trekking a la Tea House

"The mountains are not stadiums where I satisfy my ambitions to achieve. They are my cathedrals, the houses of my religion. Their presence is grand and pure. I go to them as all humans go to worship. I attempt to understand my life, to purify myself of earthly vanity, greed and fear. On their altar I strive to perfect myself physically and spiritually. From their vantage point, I view my past, dream of the future, and with unusual acuteness experience the present. My ascents renew my strength and clear my vision. They are how I practice my religion. In the mountains I celebrate creation; on each journey I am reborn."

~Anatoli Boukreev, accomplished mountaineer who died on the SW face of Annapurna I.

29 October, 2007:

Yesterday I watched the mountains. I climbed up a ridge and sat, alone, as the clouds eased like silent ghosts up-valley, following the deep cut carved by the glacier spilling down the mountainside. Up, up, they rose, over the moraine, over the ridge, up to the peaks. Wave after wave would envelop me, then pass, and through the gaps the mountains would once again appear, immense and imposing, white and grey sentinels standing guard above the sanctuary.
I stared at the face of Annapurna I in awe, trying to comprehend how the peak that looked close enough to touch was in reality 4 kms above me. 4000 vertical metres of solid rock. 4 kms and a 50% chance of dying. I searched the SW face for what seemed like ages, looking for a route up the near-vertical wall of exposed stone and ice, struggling to understand how a man could look at this same view and see a challenge instead of death. Anatoli Boukreev and a teammate died right in front of me, exactly where I was now looking, swept to their deaths by an ice avalanche cascading down the scoured rock. Somewhere below me, in the jumbled, groaning river of ice their bodies were being slowly ground back into the earth from which they came. OF COURSE they died - how could they not?

We just got back from 17 days of trekking around the Annapurna massif, in central Nepal. It's a massive massif, a hulk of rock, hulks of mountains, soaring to more than 8000 metres. They're stunning. The country of Nepal slopes gradually upwards from the plains of India, a cantilevered kingdom slowly transforming from lush, verdant jungles to the towering, snowbound peaks of the high Himalaya. You can see the tallest mountains from India, white giants floating above a hazy fog of oppresive humidity: Dhauligiri, Annapurna, Macchupucchre, Manaslu. From Pokhara, the trailhead tourist town where treks start and end, the skyline is impossible. Or at least, it is in all the pictures. We spent 5 days here before our trek, trying to recover from a nasty virus we picked up near the Indian border, and not once did we get a glimpse of the surreal world above us. Instead, we watched the clouds build every day, then ran for cover when they opened each afternoon and rinsed the town clean. Wasn't the monsoon supposed to end in September? Regardless, we set off on our trek once we felt strong, expecting soggy slogs through leech-infested forests. We were wrongIt was amazing! It was unbelievable! The views were mind boggling! My eyes were sore every night from trying to look at everything, all the time, all at once! It was very, very good.

For 17 days we walked through a wonderland of huge snowcapped mountains rising to the sky above us. We slept in soft, warm beds at night. We ate hot, home-cooked meals in cozy lodges. We gave each other daily massages to soothe our aching necks from the constant craning. We met interesting people from around the world, and shared unforgettable vistas with new friends. One morning we awoke to a coat of fresh snow covering the entire valley; winter's pristine blanket obscuring the other seasons. This was not our normal trekking style, but the light packs, comfortable tea houses and social interactions brought a whole new perspective to to walking all day in the mountains. I won't say it's better than backpacking through the wilderness, but I will say it's pretty damn nice.

We arrived back in town last night, excited to rest our feet, eager to indulge in a new menu, but sad to know that the mountains were behind us - perhaps until Alaska? Or perhaps not. We met a man at breakfast this morning, who told us about some trekking peaks he'd climbed near Everest. We've still got 6 weeks, and besides, the beach is overrated, right? Abby's never seen Everest, and I would certainly have no objections to a return visit...

We have some decisions to make.

Monday, October 8, 2007


My mind is a runaway rollercoaster, full of sharp turns, sudden drops, complete reversals. I'm never certain where it's going, or what's coming next. These pasts few weeks have left me dazed. We met a girl a couple of months ago, when we had first arrived in India. She said that she needed to go be by herself for some time. She was looking for a place to do a meditation retreat, to "process everything I've seen and been through". I didn't understand her at the time, but I'm starting to now.

At times, I feel like I could travel forever. I want to keep going and going until I've explored the farthest reaches of the planet, the simplicity of living out of a backpack the greatest freedom possible. At others, I'm tired of the road. I miss home, I miss comfort, I miss the world I know. Travelling for months on end is far from a vacation.

It's 1 am, and we're partway through our overnight bus ride from the Indian border to Pokhara, in Nepal. We're running from the heat, hoping to relax for a bit where the mountains start to reach for the sky. I'm curious to return to Pokhara. I spent a week there 5 years ago, and I'm sure much has changed. Hopefully not too much - my memories are good.

As we were waiting to leave the terminal this evening, a large group of Nepali men started to gather in front of the bus station. Many had sticks; most looked angry. The long-running civil war is said to be over, but the country is far from settled. The mood on the bus became suddenly nervous, and we left quickly, early, everyone eager to escape the growing mob.

The road is better than I expected, better than India, but still not good. I can't sleep, my ass is numb. I can barely read my handwriting. I'm bloated with gas - my neighbors love me, I'm sure. Abby is tossing and turning uncomfortably beside me, She's been sick, really sick, for the past two days. I woke up this morning with her sore throat. We need a break. We can't take a break. We have less than 10 weeks left. Too long. Not long enough. We've barely seen anything.

This is life; I am alive.

Thursday, October 4, 2007


"I don't even know the word for yes." Abby spoke the words bitterly, walking back to our hotel this afternoon along the ghats that line the Ganges River in the holy Hindu city of Varanasi. "'No'. 'None'. 'I don't want'. Everything I know is negative." We were both confused, upset, frustrated, helpless, and it was evident in our conversation. We were having a very heated argument, in a very public place, surrounded by people who live their entire lives in public, and the lack of respect for our space and privacy and selves was adding to all the negative emotions that were already spilling over.
It had been a very difficult afternoon.
The argument stemmed from our inability to deal with India. More accurately, it stemmed from our differing opinions on how to approach our inability to deal with India. We've been here for more than three months, and still feel completely apart from what's going on around us. I can't figure this place out, and it's driving me crazy. Things here are different. People are different. The values and social mores that bind the country together don't make sense to me. For that matter, I can't figure out if anything at all binds anyone together. The country is such a mishmash of cultures, religions and history that no two people are the same. Common culture? The closest thing I've been able to find is love for the glorious sport of cricket bound loosely together by Britain's finest legacy, the railroad.
We'd spent the previous hours at Assi Ghat, a large, open area on the banks of the holy Ganges, where long rows of sandstone steps lead down to the murky river. It's a fascinating place, a chaotic, vibrant mass of people and colour and commerce and confusion. Life and death mingle and merge, with thousands upons thousands of people using the dirty, silted steps to wash their bodies, to wash their clothes, to cremate their dead, to wait for death. Pilgrims and locals, young and old, devout and irreverent; all join together to create the absolutely world class people-watching.
Sitting on the steps, in the midst of the press of people coming and going, we were completely immersed in a swirl of colour. Most of the people were female, and the women's bright saris turned the world into a living rainbow, the colours and textures combining to create an impossibly complex pattern I tried in vain to capture through the lens of our camera. We found out afterwards it was a festival to honour Laxmi, the god of wealth. They believe bathing in the river on this specific day increases the likelihood of their children becoming wealthy; why this only works for mothers was never explained, and I never asked.
I can't believe how dirty the Ganges is. It's astonishing. It's filthy. Hindu's holiest river, a living incarnation of the religion's most important god, is a hopelessly polluted limpid green cesspool that flows sluggishly across the breadth of the country, collecting the waste of a billion people on its way. Watching people immerse themselves in the opaque sludge makes me cringe; I find myself flinching and looking away involuntarily. At the same time, I've realized I'm jealous of their carefree, ignorant frolicking. I'd love to join them. The heat and oppressive humidity wilts you, and it would be glorious to splash and scream along with them, to swim to the middle of the river and let the current carry me downstream. Unfortunately, my western obsession with hygiene and fear of infectious disease won't let me. Abby has tried to encourage me but I've remained unconvinced. "A billion Hindus can't be wrong...", she's reasoned. Instead I watch from the banks and dream of the cool, clear lakes at home. Indians are upfront about their pollution, and unashamed. They discard anything, anywhere, with such a casual disdain, a barely concealed "Fuck off", that leaves me feeling shrill and self-righteous in my indignant astonishment.
At the ghat, we watched an emaciated man be ridiculed and tormented by a pack of preadolescent boys. The river floods annually, and leaves behind huge banks of loose, fine silt that clog the ghats. It forms a thick mud that's too soft to walk on, and since it takes month before it's all cleared away, people create pathways around the worst spots to get to the river. The man was laying in the middle of one of these silt bogs, and was obviously unwell.
Almost naked, he was dressed in nothing more than a discarded funeral shawl normally used to cover dead bodies on their journey down to the crematation ghats. His body was skeletal, with gruesomely protruding ribs. He was writhing slowly on the ground, singing loudly and incoherently to himself, and smiling and giggling at a world only he could see. His impossibly thin arms scratched deep gashes in the soft mud with surprising strength.
The boys were clustered together to one side, provoking themselves to bolder and bolder feats. They quickly progressed from laughing and pointing to throwing balls of silt at their helpless target. One of the boys soon pulled out firecrackers, and they set them off closer and closer. Through it all, the crowds were silent accomplices. Mothers and fathers stood idly by with half smiles on their faces, pointing and gesturing every time the man made a particularly sudden or spastic movement. A boy ran up close and let fly a large clump of mud, hitting the man aquarely on his naked back. He made a feeble swat of protest then buried his head in the dirt. There was no doubt that the boys behaviour was nothing out of the ordinary, and certainly nothing to be stopped. The crazy man was worthless.
When the last firecracker expoded so close to the man's face I thought it would blind him, I couldn't watch any more. I was livid. I walked down to the crowd of boys and angrily waved them away. Now I was the entertainment, and the adults focus all turned to me. I glared at them, all of them, moving from face to face. I wanted them to be ashamed. I glared at the boys. I glared at India. I asked a passing man why no one made a move to stop the boys tormenting, and he said simply, "That man crazy", and waved his finger about one ear.
The situation infuriated me. The same questions that have been bouncing unanswered around my head for the past three months came back once more. How could I possibly understand a society that allows a person to be treated this way? How am I supposed to integrate myself into a community that has no respect for life? I can't help but feel a sense of moral superiority that gets driven home time and time again as I watch Indians treat each other like shit as they go about their daily routines. To survive in their world, aggression needs to be an instant response - to board a train, to walk through a crowd, to make your way down the road. There's no backing down, there's no deferring to others. It's a cut throat world.
We left the crowds, my rage unchecked. I was almost shaking, unsure about how to deal with it. I wanted to beat those kids to a pulp. I wanted to shake each and every person who had stood idly by while it happened until their teeth shook out and their noses started to bleed. I wanted to yell and scream and curse. I hated them all, at that moment. I hated India.
Abby wanted to leave, to be gone. I wanted to understand what I had witnessed. I wanted to make people understand why I was so angry. I wanted to teach India a lesson. We started to argue.
A quarter mile downstream, Abby turned to me and started speaking, her voice quivering with emotion. "I don't like the person that India's turning me into. I can't be myself. I'm not a mean person. Every time I shove someone out of the way to walk down the street, I'm shoving myself. Everytime I walk by someone and avoid eye contact out of fear of being sold something, it hurts. I don't like ignoring people. I don't like brushing people off. I hate that I have to assume that everybody's wants my money. I can't trust anyone. I know that there are nice people here, but I'll never meet them. I can't say hi to everyone, to answer the same three questions time after time, only to be asked if I want to buy a scarf, or need a hotel. I have to be mean to everyone to survive, and it's making me a bad person. I just can't do it." She was in tears, the pent up frustration and pain escaping with each drop streaming down her cheeks. "Acting like this tears me up inside. It makes me feel like I'm rotting from the inside out. I'm surrounded by negativity, and it affects me. I don't like this place."
I was still angry, but no less affected. It's impossible to escape the incessant scrutiny and attention, to avoid the never-ending touts who hassle you wherever you are, wherever you go. The pressure never relents. Instead, it builds gradually, daily, with every "Where from?", or beggar's hand in your face, or plea for "One pen". I find it ironic that a country that swallows you whole refuses to digest you, to incorporate you into the fabric of its being. You are always a tourist, a gora, a fact Indians will never let you forget. It's not malicious, and taken individually it's harmless. The problem is, it adds up. Business is business, unless you're everybody's business. Then it becomes difficult not to take it personally.
For me, the aggression has the reverse effect. It makes me feel alive. It heightens my senses, and brings out my competitive element. It makes me want to win. Win what, I'm not sure, but I can beat these Indians, every last one of them. If it's a game, then I'm playing. Except it isn't a game, not for them. For them, it's their life. The sense of futility and helplessness is one that pushes me. I want to figure this place out. I'm good at that. I'm good at fitting in, at mixing with crowds, at landing on my feet. Why not here? What is it that I'm not getting? Why am I perennially an outsider? I'm consumed by India, but for all the wrong reasons. I can't beat her, but I feel like if I don't, I'll be failing. The issue, I think, is control. I have none, and I fight it. I want to solve India. Except a country can't be solved.
I'm having trouble finding a way of presenting this all in a nice neat package. There isn't one. It's hard to share things that you don't understand yourself, in a way that others might. All I've written here doesn't tell the whole story, not at all. Some things are incredible. It's an unforgettable place, and highly worthwhile. It just confuses the hell out of me, and makes my whole being question everything around me. It's a good thing, but it's a hard thing. I travel to push myself. I travel to challenge myself, my opinions, my perspectives, my identity. I travel because it changes me. But what Abby said made me think about my interactions with this place. Change, sure, but for the better, or for the worse? India is India. I'm not going to change it, but it's going to change me.
I'm going to leave it there, before my brain dissolves into a puddle of that same Ganges silt I walked through earlier today. Fear not, brave armchair travellers, our intrepid hero and heroine are doing well, and fine, and are handsome and strong. They will survive. They will persevere. They will return with Good Memories. Most importantly, they really are having a fantastic time. Not an easy time, but a fantastic time.
Life is good.

India keeps life interesting......

Steve and I will remember Khajuraho, not only for it's elaborate sex temples and streets lined with aggressive touts, but also as the town where our passports were stolen. Steve, with obvious pride in his voice, will tell you that it wasn't due to laziness, or forgetfulness, or lack of responsibility. We didn't leave them in a restaurant, or forget to zip the backpack and then walk thru a crowded market. They, along with about 8000 rupees (~$200) and our visa cards, were stolen from our tiny hotel room, in the middle of the night while we slept. The thief somehow managed to crawl to our second story balcony, prop open the heavy porch door, sneak into our room, and take our valuables from our daypack. We know this because the porch door was propped wide open when we awoke, and our daypack lay unzipped in front of it, with our money belt of valuables gone. When we had gone to bed the night before, the porch door was closed, and our pack with the money belt inside was lying across the room from the porch.

After the initial disbelief and a bit of discussion, we both concluded that, without a doubt, the hotel manager and/or his friends/brothers/children/random men who hang out and sleep at his hotel every night, were responsible. I can tell you more details later, but we knew that they had our passports and money. It became even more clear when we went downstairs and told him of our situation. He smirked, said it was "not possible" and that it was "not his problem". Infuriated, we marched to the tourist police station, and reported the theft to the female officer inside. She had us write a detailed complaint, then got her superior and the hotel manager and myriad of "staff". They made a feable, very theatrical, attempt to interrogate the manager, then sent him on his merry way. Then we were fed samosas and chai, and told to return in a few hours while the police "did their work".

Being pretty confident at this point that the police were useless, we returned to the hotel, and basically pleaded for the return of our passports. "So, what do we need to do, to help you find our passports?" "What can we give you that might result in our passports being returned to us?" We hinted strongly at baksheesh (Indian monetary bribes), but to no avail. The still-smirking manager, surrounded by his also-smirking floozies, could only reply that it was "not possible" that our passports had been stolen. Had we checked our bags? How could they be sure that we weren't making this up, so we could get insurance money for our stolen items? They also insisted that it was "not a problem" for us to get new passports - just go to our embassy in Delhi, walk down the red carpet, and they'll present us new ones on silver platters. (this was something that the police also told us many, many times) For the third time since arriving in India, I broke down and cried, much to the enjoyment of the growing crowd gathered outside the hotel door. More smirking on the Indian side ensued, and we realized we were helpless, and left.

Back at the police station, we were presented with a copy of our police report, and told to bring it to the main station to get an official stamp on it. I'll spare you the details, but the summary is that pretty much the same events occurred there as at the tourist police station. The hotel manager, this time with the head of the hotel union in Khajuraho, were called in, some discussions in Hindi occurred, and we were once again told it was "not possible" that our passports had been stolen from our hotel. Steve, in a great moment of glory, slammed his fist on the head officer's desk, and began a very animated rant on the corruption of Indian police and their unwillingness to help travelers, and ending by predicting an end to tourists visiting Khajuraho if they are treated so poorly. I don't remember all of the details, but he was on a roll, emotional and emphatic in his phrases. It was quite convincing (and I'm sure he'd be happy to repeat it to you all when we're home).

Two days later, I opened my email account to find a new message from Hotel Jain.

"We have found your passport. My brother is going to Banaras today (Tues.). Please tell me the name of your hotel so we can deliver it to you.
Hotel Jain Manager"

The next morning, our passports and visa cards (minus the rupees) were returned to our hotel. The manager's brother claimed that they were found in the alley adjacent to the hotel. I think he expected a big hug and a cash reward, but all we could manage was a frosty "danyavad" (thankyou). I'm still in shock that we were somehow able to cause enough ruckus in Khajuraho to convince them that their best option was to return our passports. They got our money, so it wasn't a complete victory, but I'll take any victories in India that I can get. It was nice not to feel helpless and vulnerable, if only just for a moment when he reached into his bag, pulled out our passports, and sheepishly returned them.