Thursday, November 29, 2007

The Spaces Between

India has a billion people. Stop and think about that. Look at a map of the world, compare the size of India to the rest of the world, to Canada, to the US, to the UK, and now imagine squeezing one fifth of the world's population into that space. It's not easy. One billion people eating and sleeping and shitting and buying and selling and doing all those things that people do everywhere in the world, except here, they never do any of them alone.

On our walk back to the hotel tonight, we passed life being lived all around us, out in the open, shared with anyone who had the courage or desire to watch.

I was asked if I wanted a shave from an enterprising man who'd set up shop against the wall of a house. He had a mirror hanging from a nail, a small wooden shelf leaning up below it, and a battered chair waiting empty beside him. In Kajuraho I had seen the same thing, this time with a tree for a hanging post and the road shoulder providing the necessary empty space. They both had their regulars, the customers who returned day after day to have their early morning stubble removed as they watched the reflection of India commuting to work behind them.

We saw a pair of men pull down their pants and squat to take shits beside the main road leading into Old Delhi. Oblivious of the traffic, the people, the cows, each other, they settled in comfortably and went about their business as normally as you or I tuck a paper under our arms and saunter off to the downstairs shitter. Apart from us, no one noticed a thing.

Entire lives are lived in the spaces that we take for granted - the distance you drive from your house to the grocery store, say, here encompasses whole universes. Peoples' lives consist of the small concrete garage where they eat, sleep and earn their livelihood, wedged in a narrow, dirty alley, where they eat the same food, at the same times, and have the same routine, day after day. Blink, and they don't exist, their existence irrelevant to the India you've discovered.

That thought is a very difficult one for me. Irrelevant people, living irrelevant lives. Millions and millions of people struggling daily to survive until tomorrow, with no thought of different, or better, only the immediacy of selling ten more oranges so they can have enough food to feed their family tonight. They don't mean anything to me. They have no bearing on my life. They are irrelevant. How arrogant, how fortunate, how privileged, and in the end, how true. I can ignore the overfilled spaces and keep walking; blink, and carry on. Those spaces between will disappear as soon as I leave, and return home to the emptiness of the West. If a tree falls in the forest, does anyone hear it? Or better yet, if you watch a tree fall in the forest, then walk away and never return, did it really happen? Or did it matter if it did happen?

I'll take any comments...

Monday, November 26, 2007

The War Room

Beers in hand, burrowed deep into the warmth of our sleeping bags to ward off the winter chill that's seeped into the air, Abby and I face each other across our hotel room. We each have a copy of the India Lonely Planet, and we're trying to figure out how to spend the final three weeks of our vacation. The floor is littered with our meagre belongings, scattered evenly throughout the room as though a cyclone blew through, or perhaps our bags exploded upon arrival - we just got here yesterday but it already looks like we've lived here for months.

We've been throwing ideas back and forth for over an hour now, and I've made two return trips to the corner store to replenish our planning fuel; a thirsty traveller is not a happy traveller. India is big, REALLY big, and we've barely seen any of it. Three weeks sounds like a lot, but put it down on paper, trace the train rides, the buses, the city stops on the map and it disappears in the blink of an eye.

How quickly things change: before we left for Everest, I could hardly wait for the trip to be done. I was anxious to finish our trek, to head back to Delhi, to board the airplane that would take us home to Canada, to Christmas. Now, with less than 20 days left, I feel like it's all passed by too quickly. There's too much left undone, too many places to see. I need more time! Sitting here like this, sipping cheap beer in a ratty room in a dirty city, planning my immediate future makes me want to dance. The air in the room is alive with possibility - so many choices, so many roads, so many lines on the map that lead to anywhere, to everywhere.

We leaf through our respective books, Abby flipping the pages of our battered, war-torn tome while I try not to crease the spine of the pristine copy I borrowed from the lounge. It was sitting there, lonely, and besides - two heads are better than one. We trade page numbers and intriguing destinations, pointing out restaurants and beaches and ashrams and mountains. We're quickly working ourselves into a rabid feeding frenzy, ready to devour the entire country in a dozen emormous bites. We play off each other as the sights coalesce into various potential routes zigzagging across the green triangle. They grow and grow until finally they collapse like a house of cards under the sheer weight of their ambition. We have only 20 days. We start all over again.

What will we do? Where will we go? The beers are empty, day has become night. We've reached a decision: we're heading to the beach!

Everest, Day 1

(Journal entry November 8th)

After a week of waiting and hoping for Steve to get well, we finally boarded a Yeti Airlines flight in Kathmandu this morning, bound for Lukla. The flight was pretty amazing - I'd heard it was good, but having flown in many small airplanes and helicopters around Alaska, I didn't expect to be as blown away as I was. It was a small plane, and we were on the wrong side to have window views of the Himalaya, but I still spent the entire trip straining and shifting to glimpse the snow capped peaks. Clouds covered the valleys, so all you could see were the jagged tops of the tallest shear-faced ridges. The mountains grew in size and number as we got further from Kathmandu, and when I heard a lady in the front row whisper "Everest?", I was sure the plane was going to fall out of the sky as everyone practically lept out of their seats to catch a glimpse of the famed mountain. Unfortunately, no one could confirm the sighting - the mountains and ridges were too numerous and widespread to pick the tallest among them.

After about 30 minutes of flying, we were fully immersed in the mountains, and I began to lose sight of the clear path through (or around) them. The pilot began banking left and right, between narrow passes, barely above high mountain plateaus, and around knolls and peaks. It felt like I was in a video game, or maybe a Star Wars battle scene, as we seemed to barely skim over and through the ground below us. Complicating the diverse terrain were whisps of cloud and fog that were rolling through the scenery, but the pilot manuevered through it all with complete calm and ease. Suddenly, with a quick turn to the right, the clouds broke and several buildings could be seen, cut into the mountainside directly in front of us. We picked up speed as the pilot aimed the nose of the plane directly at the small village. I was a bit worried that we were heading for a crash landing on top of a sod roof, when, incredibly, a tiny runway appeared, cut directly into the side of the mountain like a terraced field. We touched down at it's edge, and somehow managed to slow down with just inches to spare, saving us from slamming into the concrete wall that marked the runway's end. It was incredible. No descent was necessary; our cruising altitude was exactly the same as the runway's altitude.

There were two Nepali ladies on the flight - a mother and daughter -who obviously hadn't flown in an airplane before. It was an odd thing to witness - coming from the western world, you just take it for granted that people are comfortable with the sites, sounds, and feeling of being airborne. The older lady clutched the seat in front of her the entire trip, looking down at the floor instead of admiring the views, and the younger girl had a vice grip on a Japanese lady's arm and hand throughout the trip. When we banked or swayed at all, she would reach out with her second hand and grab another appendage with equal strength and furvor. I think the Japanese lady was a bit uncomfortable with the whole thing, because she kept trying to gently reclaim her arm(s), but the Nepali girl was way too strong for her. Needless to say, both ladies were quite exstatic when we landed safely in Lukla.

We only made it a few hours down the trail today (stopping even for a glorious nap in the semi-sun). No need to tempt Steve's sickness to return, plus the Everest trek is meant to be taken slowly because of the altitude. Consequently, it's 3 pm, and I'm already cozy in the sleeping bag, ready to dig into one of the three books I'm lugging with me.

We really debated doing this trek at all, mainly because I (we) felt guilty about retreating to the mountains - what we love, but what is also easy and comfortable - instead of heading back to the heat, touts, smells, corruption, and assault of India. But, now that we're here, I'm incredibly happy with our decision. Already, the Everest region seems more rustic and raw than Annapurna, and looking at the map, it looks like there are several day hikes to remote glacial valleys and scrambles up to view points that look quite appealing. And, the scenery is fantastic, the fall colors are emerging, there's a cool mountain briskness to the air, and I'm very happy with life!

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Kathmandu Revisited

I first visited Kathmandu as a mere youngster, in travel terms. It was the first city to captivate my imagination, and grab my soul. As soon as I set foot outside the airport, I somehow felt more alive, and the feeling didn't go away until I waved goodbye to the dry brown valley on my return flight, the snowy peaks of the Himalaya towering in the background.

I'd visited a couple places in Central America, but the assault of the Third World, commingled with such a bustling and established tourist scene was fascinating, and I recall spending days on end wandering aimlessly through the grungy labyrinth of Thamel, being amazed that shop after shop after shop after shop sold nothing but tourist junk! The entire neighborhood existed for no other reason than to keep travellers like myself fat and happy, and I indulged.

Fast forward five years: Now a veteran of the world (or so I sometimes like to think to myself), Abby and I arrive in Kathmandu after an unbearably uncomfortable 7-hour bus ride, having spent the entire day trying to determine the proper technique to staying seated in the back row, with overhanging backrests due to the rear window, and seats proper that are all sloped slightly downhill. Every small bump in the road found me sliding uncontrollably forward, trying to avoid banging my shins on the seat in front of me. I also felt myself becoming sick. As we start and stopped our way into town through rush hour traffic, Kathmandu captivated neither my imagination, nor my soul.

We've been here almost a week now, and I still haven't found that same old magic. Some of my memories are completely accurate – I found the tiny hole-in-the-wall where I had the best tandoori chicken of my life, and the same two bakeries gracing the main intersection are still chocked full of the same delicious pastries – but I also remember being less…annoyed. Overwhelmed, and wide eyed, certainly, but it was all so new, and vivid, and alive, that I never stopped long enough to think about what was around me. It's still that wonderful, energetic place that initially captivated me, full of sights and sounds and a mystery that makes it different from every other place I've been, but I also find myself looking deeper into the fabric of the city, seeing things I didn't see, pondering issues that never occurred to me on my first visit. I'm trying to figure out if it's Thamel and Kathmandu that have changed, or me.

I'm wondering if I'm getting old. Old, and serious. Old, serious, and cranky. Not really, but kind of. Mostly I think it's a function of comfort zone – the bigger it gets, the more it takes to stretch it. Packs of street dogs, sadhus taming cobras, the filth of a third world urban river – these are all things that I've become accustomed to seeing. They no longer shock me. I've come to expect them upon reaching a big city, developed a way of steeling myself for the brace of contact with the vendors, the touts, the beggars, the street kids.

I've also been quite sick. I spent the first three days in town tossing and turning in my unbearably uncomfortable bed. My neck was on fire, my knees throbbed, and my head felt like it was splitting apart. Halfway through the day, Abby helped me shuffle the few blocks to the doctor, where I was asked a few questions, pricked for some blood, and given a ridiculously small stool sample bottle (ever tried to fill a thimble with mashed potatoes from a big pot - with no utensils?). After a 20 minute wait, my diagnosis was ready. I had giardia – a lot of giardia. The doctor assured me that it had nothing whatsoever to do with any of the symptoms that I was currently exhibiting, but gave me some "atom bombs" that would "destroy all those little critters inside". Uhh, what about the other things. You know, the things I came to see you about? "Ah, viral. I'm pretty sure it's something viral. Wait and see". So I waited, and saw. I saw fevers, and shakes, and sweats, and a blistered brain, and burning forehead, and pain – lots and lots of pain. The next day, I returned to the clinic. Different doctor, similar questions, same prognosis: Virus. "Could be anything. Not typhoid, not meningitis, not encephalitis – nothing major – so we'll just have to treat it with Ibuprofen." Awesome. What about malaria? "Maybe a 1 percent chance." The matter resolved to his liking, he packed me off with some overpriced pink pills and a heftier than imagined bill. I hope insurance pays for things like this.

I feel much better today. Abby and I, along with our friend Rose, went on a little road trip across town. We were excited - Jane Goodall, one of the world's foremost wildlife biologists is in town for three days, and was supposed to give a talk this afternoon. We made the confoundingly confusing trip across the river and upon our arrival were greeted with an ominously quiet building. We walked eagerly up to the ticket counter, were told with a happy little smile that the talk had been moved, and that it had actually been from 10-11, not 4-5. Didn't we read the paper this morning? Yup - Abby checked it at breakfast, and it had definitely said 4-5 pm, Patan Museum, Patan. We were now standing in the Patan Museum, Patan, and there was definitely nothing to be seen, other than a small, sad poster pasted deep in a corner of a side alcove, and some small, sad-looking gringos. It started to rain, and a single lonely tear rolled slowly down my face.

It turns out that the afternoon was quite interesting. We found a café and talked about moral responsibility and begging, and social consciousness, and all these troubling issues that have been hounding us for months across the subcontinent. Rose works for a non-profit in Ladakh, and is trying to build a career in the field of international development. It was good to hear a well-informed third opinion to stretch the bounds of what Abby and I had already gone over again and again between ourselves, although in the end we resolved nothing. We decided the issue is unresolvable. There is no right, there is no wrong, and there are certainly no magic bullets.

With the rain dissipating, and the light quickly fading, we climbed in a shared taxi back to Thamel, and here I am sitting in front of a computer. Of course, the internet isn't actually working, but I've been assured for the past hour that it will be coming back online in "5-minute". That hasn't stopped the business from welcoming customers with warm smiles and inviting them to sit down and try their luck, but hey, who's being cynical?

I'm feeling healthy again (my best guess is that it was something viral) so we've decided to go trekking again. We've arranged to get flights to Lukla, in the Everest region, and go up to Base Camp and around. We've also planned to climb another mountain – Island Peak (6189m), an offshoot of the Lhotse ridge that looks out on the massive Lhotse Face. A little mountain air, a couple of peaks bagged – I'll be good as new and ready for… The Return to India, Part II. Stay tuned…

Monday, November 5, 2007

Pictures from Nepal

Some rural Nepalis playing cricket on market day in their village.

Terraced rice paddies in the Himalayan foothills.

A Maoist checkpoint along the Annapurna Circuit trail. They're asking for "voluntary donations". Wouldn't that be called a tax? "No,no. No tax. Donation." Smile, wink, sneer.

Beans drying in the sun along the trail.