26 June 2017

An Indian summer

In November 2016 I flew to India with clear intentions and low expectations. Among the intentions I could list talking to more people and photographing them more, pushing myself harder to do the things that didn’t come easily to me, and — particularly important — doing my utmost not to get crook. The expectations were related and mostly negative: I expected to get crook, and I expected much of the travelling, particularly the inescapable haggling, which I hate, to be hard. I expected to be scammed, hoped it would be minor and infrequent, and intended to accept it with at least a little grace and some compassion for myself for feeling like a fool — which I also expected.

I knew, though, that accomplishing easy things is rarely as satisfying as accomplishing difficult things, although I was pretty sure that the delights of adversity aren’t as awesome as Nietzsche cracked them up to be. If I’d truly believed him, I’d have skipped the bottled water, drunk the parasite soup masquerading as the jug of water on every dhaba table, and spent most of my almost-four months in India clenching my quivering sphincter and desperately searching for the closest toilet.

No thanks. I could think of more enjoyable ways to spend my time in India, and the pursuit of self-improvement through the wilful cultivation of intestinal parasites wasn’t one of them. Besides, self-improvement seemed to me to be, well, selfish or self-obsessed. One way of looking at life is to see it as a choice between two ways of looking at life: the inward-looking, solipsistic search for the self, or the outward-looking, compassionate delight in encountering The Other.
Other people, other things — anything, that is, other than one’s self. Seeking the Other seemed more interesting, less selfish, and potentially more rewarding than searching for my Self.

In any case, I wasn’t going to India to find myself, partly because I wasn’t lost, but mostly because, … well, to tell the truth, I didn’t know clearly why I was going to India: I just had to. I had unfinished business there, although it wasn’t business and had hardly started. I had people I wanted to see; places I wanted to visit. Some of those places I’d failed to get to on my previous trip in 2014, when illness had stymied my plans; others had arrived on the list as I’d thought about what I wanted to do in India this time.

Mostly, though, what I wanted to do was just bum around and live in India for a few months.

I got to many of the new places, and of course they bore little relation to how I’d imagined they’d be. I’d expected that. Imagination’s fine if you’re writing fiction, but it bears little relation to the way a place feels when you get there, even if you’ve had help from the best non-fiction. 

That includes photographs and films, too — they’re seldom any better than imagination, because they’re necessarily so selective in what they show. Life is often humdrum, and the photographer’s temptation is to show instead what’s not humdrum, which therefore turns out to be not a true reflection of life in the place being photographed. Some photographers deliberately resist this temptation, but even those who practise this so-called democratic photography — pioneered by William Eggleston [1]— can’t truly show you what a place feels like simply by documenting what’s in front of the lens. What matters is behind the lens, and I don’t mean the camera.

What photographs do best is not that they show you what to expect, but that they remind you of what a place feels like. They can only do that after you’ve been there, and only the best photographs can do that, and there are far too few of those. 

Writing suffers the same shortcoming — like photos and films, it fails miserably to prepare you for your first meeting with a place. It does better at reminding you. Writing can remind you of a place in two ways: when it’s read, and when it’s written. The first point is obvious enough if the writing’s good enough, but people who don’t write probably never realise the second point, even though it’s at least as true. As I write, I often find myself remembering things I didn’t know I’d forgotten. Try it for yourself: try writing about something that happened when you were a kid. Stick with it until the flow comes, and you’ll see what I mean.

It's harder for photos, though, because they're hopelessly trapped by their requirement to show something — literally, visually — and, most of the time, that turns out to be the wrong thing. Only excellent photographs transcend that constraint. Their power lies in their ability to evoke in us something non-trivial, something more than a simple ‘Wow!’ and, if they do it well, they might just manage to put the viewer on the right wavelength.

And the greatest photographs go even further; their power lies in our inability to pinpoint the feeling they evoke; we know only that what we feel is profound to the point of being overwhelming. Even if you can eventually find a few words for the feeling, that’s partly the point — you struggle to find those right words. Often they’ll be wrong, and all you can do is shrug and say, ‘That’s not what I meant at all.’

If you don’t believe me, go and look at the photographs of the late Stanley Greene, who photographed in places that have become bywords for horror and atrocity: Rwanda, Chechnya, Iraq, and others. Look at this photograph. Words can add nothing to that photograph, but if they could, the best would be from Greene himself. ‘Since the death of her child,’ he wrote, ‘Zelina often stares at something far away, elusive. She says she is already dead herself, if only time would hurry up.’

Sometimes I wonder whether I could have photographed in the sort of situations in which Greene worked, but it doesn’t take me long to accept how lucky I’ve been to have not been given the opportunity. The price he paid is one I doubt I could have borne.

Fortunately, my trip to India was nothing even remotely like Greene’s tours of duty, and my photographs were mostly reminders of the wonders and joys of life rather than its horrors and grief.

Still, as I’d expected, much happened that I didn’t expect. I went to Nepal, forced out of India by the cash crisis that paralysed much of India less than a week after I’d arrived. I survived a good two months without getting crook. I found excellent food — and even beer — in Bundi, where, ten years earlier, the best food I’d eaten had been a slop resembling cabbage stewed in hair oil. I once caught a flight that turned out to be almost on time. The Western Ghats, infamous for their regular and copious rain, turned out to be so dry that no one was seeing any animals in the famous places. And I found Kochi a delight and wished I’d spent more time there.

I returned to New Zealand with a lot of photographs (but not enough), three hundred handwritten pages in three A5 notebooks, and an upper respiratory tract infection. I hadn’t achieved everything I’d intended, but that was always going to be a long shot, and I’d managed what I’d most intended: I’d bummed around India for a few months and lived there.

1. For contemporary examples, look at the excellent work of Peter Black, Maurice Lye, Bill Knight, and gstuartnielsen. Apologies to any of the aforementioned photographers who might dislike the label ‘democratic photography’ or consider it doesn’t fit their work. Like all labels, it’s nebulous and probably inaccurate, but, for all you others, you should look at these photographers’ work anyway.

1. Father and son, Kochi.
2. Tomato wallah, Pahar Ganj, New Delhi.
3. A corner of the corner of the world I call home.

Photos and original text © 2017 Pete McGregor

27 January 2017

Return to India

One of the guide books had warned about making an early start for the border crossing from Mahendranagar to India to avoid spending a night in Banbasa. This was nonsense. The crossing was one of the easiest I’d had on any of my travels, and the only queues I encountered were identical – a Spanish man and a Dutch man just ahead of me at the checkposts. At the Nepalese Immigration office I exchanged almost all my Nepalese rupees for Indian rupees and chatted briefly with a man who turned out to have been a guide at Bardia. The conversation was just warming up when I had to leave, and one of the last things I did was imitate the call of the male tiger we’d heard on the first day in the jungle. The ex-guide smiled and nodded. Perhaps it brought back good memories for him.

At the Indian security checkpoint and again at Indian Immigration, I followed the two foreigners. The slightly dour Indian official asked for the Dutch man’s occupation.
  ‘Entrepreneur,’ he said, then added, ‘freelance.’
I had no idea what that meant, but apparently I had somehow jumped the queue. The official asked my occupation.
  ‘University teacher,’ I said
The man from Spain seemed interested. With his dark olive complexion, black bushy beard, and long black hair in a man-bun, he could easily have passed for someone from the Punjab.
  ‘If you don’t mind my asking,’ he said, ‘in what field?’
  ‘Science communication,’ I said. ‘Teaching students how to organise their ideas and present an argument. How to write a report and work in teams and present a seminar.’
They liked the sound of this, but I was being dismissed. The official had handed my passport back and was waving me towards the door.
  ‘You can go,’ he said.

My helpful little rickshaw driver worked hard, pedalling me over some awful sections of what could hardly be called road. He even picked up another, elderly, passenger partway, thus increasing the workload. The sun beat down, he mopped his face with a cloth, his sparse hair grew damp, but he didn’t relent. At Banbasa bus station I paid him well, and he touched the money to his forehead, then to the front wheel of his rickshaw, three times quickly. The effort had been all his, but the way he acknowledged his vehicle touched me. It was a simple, unaffected act of humility, and I respected him for it.

The Spaniard and the Dutch man arrived soon after. We sat together and chatted over chai. The Dutch man had a few days in Rishikesh before returning to Amsterdam. He was laden with gifts for people back home, he said. He pointed to his huge pack.
  ‘I have another bag stored in Delhi,’ he said.
The Spaniard had only a small, woven backpack and a long time yet in India. Both men wanted to know what had first attracted me to India, and they understood when I said I didn’t know. I remembered Krishna’s comment in Naini Tal, almost exactly ten years ago.
  ‘India called you and you came,’ he’d said.
It still sounded like as good an answer as any, and my new friends understood it. Then the van to Tanakpur arrived and I had to leave. I’d enjoyed their company for a short time and wished I could have spent longer chatting. At one stage we’d been laughing about something and I looked up to see an elderly Indian man sitting nearby, grinning with enjoyment. Humour can so easily be infectious even when it’s not understood.

Fifteen rupees to Tanakpur seemed ridiculously cheap. So too did the 150 rupees from Tanakpur to Champawat: about two hours in a comfortable shared van with a good-humoured, careful, skilful driver in camo pants, a knitted top with the number 10 on the back, and yet another fashionable haircut – almost no back and sides with a spiky, gelled coiff on top.

The two young men next to me had reasonably good English, and we chatted while we waited for the driver to find one last passenger. They, too, wanted to know my occupation. I explained briefly then asked what they did.
  ‘We are software engineers,’ the man next to me said, and they smiled simultaneously.

He was from Chandigarh – a very clean city, he said – the other was from Delhi but was returning to his home about 15 kilometres beyond Champawat. I asked about the ‘cement marker’ commemorating Corbett’s shooting of the Champawat man-eater, the tigress with the greatest number of human kills in recorded history.
  ‘It is at Lohagat,’ he said.

Later, at Champawat, the only person who knew anything about the marker said it was at the Chataar Bridge. He was one of two people running the KMVN Tourist Rest House, and at first he, too, knew nothing about it, but after a night to mull it over, he asked me about the Jim Corbett tiger. Yes, I said, I wanted to see the marker.
  ‘At Chataar,’ he said, and I knew he understood.
He pointed which way I needed to go along the road, but the gesture was indistinct and his English sadly inadequate. I appreciated his sincere attempt to help, but I wondered where he’d got his information from. For all I knew, he’d looked up the same guidebook I had, but one thing was certain: Lohagat and Chataar were two very different places.

No one else at Champawat knew anything else about the marker, least of all the man at the information office, whose only response to my attempts to communicate was to try to give me information about Corbett National Park. This was the usual response when I mentioned Jim Corbett and the man-eating tigress: everyone looked blankly at me and eventually assumed I wanted to see a tiger at Corbett National Park.

The van to Champawat stopped for lunch at a small roadside dhaba, where I ate dahl and chapatis and finished with a small dish of keer. All of it was delicious, and the software engineer from Delhi insisted on paying for my lunch – a small act of kindness that was by no means the only one I was to experience on my journey. The lunch sustained me for the rest of the day, although I did supplement it at Champawat with a couple of cups of chai during an exploratory walk in the afternoon.

The first was at a tiny shop where the proprieter, blind in one eye, explained in rudimentary English how to make chai.
  ‘Milk, sugar, tea, water,’ he said, forgetting to mention the crucial spices.
  ‘Secret recipe,’ I said, and his friend, with better English, laughed enthusiastically.

The other chai was bought for me by the manager of a newly-opening branch of the Canara Bank. He and his two younger friends chatted with me for a long time, but I was in no hurry and was enjoying the conversation even when the communication didn’t quite succeed.

By the time I sat down in my room at the Hotel Shikar in Almora, I was done in. I’d survived the long journey from Champawat, though, and wasn’t completely shattered – probably more than could be said for the elderly Italian man who had shared the journey with me. He’d appeared suddenly at the window of my jeep in Champawat’s main bazaar just after I’d negotiated an still-exorbitant price to get to Lohagat to catch a bus to Almora.

I persuaded the jeep to stop at the Chataar Bridge, which turned out to be on the outskirts of town. If I’d known, I could have walked there. Of the Corbett marker, however, there was no sign. The driver asked some locals at the bridge – at least I think that’s what he was doing – but even they had no idea where it was or even whether such a thing existed. If it does, it’s presumably small, dusty, overgrown, and possibly even broken.

I photographed the only marker I saw, which commemorated the bridge-builders but nothing else; saving people from a gruesome, terrifying death was apparently less important than speeding up the flow of traffic. Corbett had been all but forgotten in Champawat. How many of the people who had forgotten him had ancestors who had been killed by the tigress? What did it take to be remembered?

I got back in the jeep and we left Champawat behind. I wouldn’t forget it, but my memories would be for reasons more than the attempt to find Corbett. In just one short overnight stay I’d grown to like it a lot.

In the morning I’d walked to the main bazaar as it opened. I was looking for something for breakfast. A group of men in a dhaba called out to me, and I grinned and rubbed my hands together to indicate the cold. They beckoned and pointed to the wood-fired oven, inviting me to warm my hands. One man was deep-frying red chillies in a huge pot over a gas ring.
   ‘Dahl fry,’ another man said.
I asked if I could get aloo paratha.
  ‘No aloo paratha,’ he said.
Then another man pointed to the dhaba next door and said, ‘Omelette.’
The man with the best English added, ‘Bun omelette.’
He accompanied me next door and made sure I got the order I wanted.
  ‘Chilli?’ he said.
  ‘No chilli. Danyavad.’

I was noticing the same thing about Champawat that I’d noticed everywhere: initially strange, foreign, and a little daunting, the town had begun to feel welcoming and friendly after just a couple of walks along the street. As I had in Mahendranagar, I began to feel looked after, that people had quickly recognised me – not surprising, since I blended in like soot on a snowfield – and were keen I should get a good impression of their town.

It was certainly working, and I felt tempted to stay another night. I wanted to return to Champawat, but I wanted to move on, too.

At Lohagat, a helpful young woman with good English found us a bus that would connect with the bus to Almora. She checked with the driver; the bus would leave at ten, she said. I thanked her and told her how this was my second time in Uttarakhand and how it felt good to be back.

Antonio and I settled down in the bus, which gradually filled with passengers. The process resembled staff turnover at a bad place of employment: some people boarded; some decided to leave, for reasons unclear. Sometimes, those who left returned. They might have gone to eat something, or smoke a beedi, or chat with friends, or find somewhere – anywhere would do, apparently – to pee.

Not all returned, though. One man in a white, knitted, cricketer’s vest and dull orange beanie loaded two fertiliser sacks half full of something onto the bus, along with a cloth bag of other belongings. His resemblance to Captain Haddock was so unnerving I began to wonder whether I was hallucinating. He stayed on board for a while, got off, returned, then, not long before the bus left, unloaded his three bags and disappeared for good.

An ancient woman got on and sat nearby. She had thick-lensed glasses and a peculiar knitted cap with a peaked crown and a long tail like a mullet. I greeted her and she responded with a beautiful, almost-toothless smile and much head-nodding, with her hands together in the namaste greeting. Her age hadn’t dulled her wit, though. She bantered with the other passengers; she had plenty to say, none of comprehensible to me but obviously enjoyed by the others.

Ten o’clock came and went. As I’d expected, nothing happened. Some time later, Antonio looked across at me and opened his hands in a question. I gave him the non-committal head-wobble of resignation, a suggestion that this was usual when travelling on buses in India. The bus finally left at eleven in a flurry of urgency. The conductor got on, kicked me out of his seat, which I’d unknowingly been occupying, and the driver leaped into his seat, started the engine, and gave the gears a good grinding. The brakes screamed like the pig I’d seen slaughtered in Mahendranagar, and, because the entire journey followed steep, hilly, winding roads, that amounted to an awful lot of screaming. My main concern, though, and the one for which I had the most reason to be grateful, was that they continued to work.

My enforced seat change left me squeezed onto a seat beside a small, elderly man with an impressive white moustache and designer stubble that I suspected was, like mine, undesigned. Antonio, squashed against the window on the other side of the small man, sat with his big bag under his feet and hugged his smaller bag on his lap. He appeared to be making hard work of the travelling. He’d clasp his forehead with his hand, close his eyes for a while, then wipe his face with his hand and sigh and hug his bag tighter.

His little point-and-shoot camera had stopped working. He fiddled with it several times and later showed me how it wouldn’t focus. I looked through the menu, wondering whether he’d inadvertently changed a crucial setting, but could find nothing. The trip must have been turning into a nightmare for him, but he hadn’t lost his enthusiasm for visiting the very interesting temples. He kept mentioning something about an ‘interesting dynasty’ in the region, but his English frustrated him. Sometimes he’d give up partway through saying something.
  ‘I don’t speak English,’ he’d say, in good, clear English, and he’d shrug in frustration.

His English was at least adequate, though, and far better than my Italian. I didn’t know any Italian  except ‘bienvenido’ and ‘ciao’ and wasn’t even confident using those. Antonio’s main difficulty wasn’t speaking, though: it was understanding what I was saying, even when I tried to keep it simple and slow.

He was going to Rudraprayag and Josimath, and to Badrinath if it was open. I said it was closed; one of the Champawat bank manager’s friends was from Badrinath and had told me it had already closed because of heavy snow.

Antonio’s itinerary startled me. I hadn’t expected to see any foreigners in Champawat, nor had I expected any foreigner other than someone interested in Corbett to visit Rudraprayag. He was on some kind of possibly spiritual, possibly academic, journey: a pilgrimage perhaps. But when I asked whether he was studying the hindu religion, his answers were non-committal, and all I understood was that he was interested in the temples and the dynasties, whatever they were.

I wondered whether I, too, was on some kind of pilgrimage, but I felt too embarrassed to explain that the only things I wanted to see in particular, apart from birds and other wildlife, were the places where Jim Corbett had hunted and killed famous man-eating tigers and leopards. I doubted I could have explained my motivations to Antonio, and even if I could have, the contrast between a pilgrimage focused on religion and one focused, if at all, on man-eaters, seemed too great to make sense. We each had our goals, his far more focused than mine, and I left it at that.

The bus stopped for lunch, and I ate with the driver and a couple of other men, mopping up dahl and aloo gobi with chapatis until I’d eaten my fill. The driver seemed surprised when I turned down the rice. I assured him as best I could that the dahl and chapatis  had been good, and this satisfied him. I think he liked the way I’d joined in and eaten with them.

Antonio asked if I’d enjoyed the food.
  ‘Yes,’ I said, ‘it was very good. Very filling.’
  ‘For me, is impossible,’ he said. ‘The Indian food, ...’
He gave an indeterminate gesture.
  ‘Too spicy?’
But he didn’t explain any further, and I wondered what he ate if he couldn’t eat the local food. That evening in the hotel restaurant he had soup and toast and a green salad. I didn’t see the salad, but my heart sank when I heard him order it, and I hoped he’d get away with it. His difficulties were numerous enough without being compounded by illness.

The old man who had been sitting between Antonio and me had left the bus. At one point he’d heard me confirm to the driver that we wanted to go to Almora, and he gestured for me to stay seated. Then he opened his left hand and sketched an imaginary road map on the palm: a clear intersection. I gathered he was indicating the place we should change buses. He had not a word of English.

His empty seat didn’t last long. Soon after he left, a tiny, age-wizened woman boarded the bus. I reached down and lifted her small, heavy bag of lentils into the bus, and she climbed the steps slowly. I shifted across next to Antonio and the little woman slumped into the seat I’d vacated. For such a tiny person, she occupied an astonishing amount of space.

When I got off the bus for lunch, I greeted her with a namaste, hands together. This delighted her. She took a shine to me, and when I got back on the bus, she patted the seat beside her. I did as I was told, and we had a short conversation, both of us unable to understand a word of the other’s language. Possibly ‘Almora’. She ordered a young guy to buy her a small packet of Bhujia mix, and after she’d eventually opened it she offered me some. I felt a great affection for her and didn’t mind when she began farting, silently and appallingly.

We changed to a local bus at the fork the elderly man had drawn on his hand. This bus, considerably smaller, had no luggage racks, but I stowed my duffel at the front, where it eventually kept company with numerous other large loads, most in once-white, woven plastic fertiliser bags. Antonio took the seat behind me and slumped forward, putting his forehead on his forearm which he’d rested on the back of my seat. He groaned. I looked at him and then at a woman looking at him, also obviously concerned.
  ‘Are you OK?’ I asked him.
He lifted his head, searched for the words, and said something about the wind from the window having affected him. I never did find out what was afflicting him, but he survived the journey and seemed to have recovered when I saw him in the Shikar restaurant in the evening.

The first half of this final leg of the journey felt interminable. If we’d averaged twenty kilometres an hour we’d have been doing well, but I doubted we came anywhere near that. The intervals between stops – to pick up or set down passengers, to deliver mail, to buy vegetables, and sometimes just so the driver could chat with friends – might have averaged five minutes. I kept wondering about Antonio’s condition, and I’d also become worried about the damage the cramped and uncomfortable ride was doing to my own bad back.

The driver, an older man with stubble and – apparently – a hard-case humour, had a single long dreadlock coiled into a tight, neat man-bun. He was trendier, in an unassuming way, than I would ever be. He knew everyone and the journey was, for him at least and some of his passengers, as much a social event as a way of travelling between places. Perhaps in that respect it bore a slight resemblance to my own travels.

We got to Almora in the end, of course. You always do, but whether I was stronger as a result, as the common misunderstanding of Nietzsche’s famous statement would have it, remained doubtful. My back was certainly worse, not better, and I felt no inclination to get into a shared jeep to Kausani the following morning.

A terrible headache woke me around 4.30 a.m. I tried to ignore it but eventually had to get up and find my last pack of ibuprofen, which subdued but didn’t kill it. I took another two later in the morning and, conscious I had only three doses left, bought more from a small pharmacy in one of the alleys. They were 400 mg tablets: the standard dosage in New Zealand. I bought two blister-packs of 15 each, the equivalent of three 20-tablet packs in New Zealand, for 23 rupees: less than fifty New Zealand cents. In New Zealand, the equivalent amount of generic ibuprofen would have cost twelve dollars.

I took one, and the headache disappeared and stayed away. Nevertheless, I took it easy for the rest of the day, writing diligently, making forays into town, and striking up acquaintanceships. Towards evening, I pushed myself to take the camera out. The response was good, and although I couldn’t sustain the effort, I came away with several good photographs.

On the first foray I bought a bottle of water and had one of my two 10-rupee notes
rejected because it was torn. I’d forgotten to check my change somewhere, and someone had slipped the torn tenner in. I didn’t mind – it was only about twenty cents – but resolved to be more careful in future.

The owner of the shop was 29 years old and had been called back to Almora by his father to run the shop after his older brother had moved on. His father had told him it was his duty to look after the shop, but he stopped short of saying he was pleased to oblige. His English was excellent although a little hard to understand because of his strong accent. He also spoke fast, presumably because he wanted to convey his entire life story in about ten minutes, but he was likeable and welcoming. His shop looked clean and neat, with several good tables, and I thought it might be a good place sit and write, but I baulked when he told me how he’d talked for a couple of hours recently with a foreign couple who’d sat over there – he gestured towards the tables.

I carried on along Mall Road and quickly found myself outside the main shopping area. I was about to turn back when I saw a small dhaba that looked as if it sold chai. I ordered some and took a seat in a comfortable, broken office chair at the back of the shop, next to a woman cradling a small child. The baby stared at me, its huge eyes even wider than usual. I smiled and gave it a little wave and then the namaste greeting, hands together, with a little bow. The baby was unmoved, but the mother gave me a shy smile.

The wallah’s name was Govind. I returned in the afternoon for more chai and saw him making an aloo paratha, so I ordered one too. He gave me the one he was cooking, which made me slightly embarrassed I might have jumped the queue, but no one appeared to mind. I surprised myself by enjoying a definite chilli spiciness to the paratha and wondered whether, perhaps, I was gradually becoming used to India.

I’d decided to leave Kausani until later and go to Naini Tal first. A little thrill ran through me. I was returning to one of the significant  places from my first trip, ten years ago: the place  where giardia had laid me low; where I’d met Krishna and drunk whisky with him and his brother and later climbed my hotel’s fence around midnight so I could get back to my room; where I’d played cat-and-mouse with the female snow leopard alone at the top of the zoo late in the afternoon when everyone else had gone. Maybe I was, after all, on a strange kind of pilgrimage, following my own footsteps to places that had changed my life, or at least made it what it was.

There’s always a risk when returning to a significant place, and I tried to keep my expectations low. Naini Tal would have changed; it wouldn’t be the same place I’d visited a decade ago, and, in particular, I knew the snow leopard had gone. I didn’t want to know what had happened to her, but I hoped she’d had at least some quality of life, and I hoped her game with me had contributed in a small way to that. I also knew I had changed, as we all do, and I didn’t know how I’d react to Naini Tal because I didn’t know how I’d changed. All I knew was I hoped it was for the better.

I shared a taxi to Bhowali and a jeep to Naini Tal, and when I got there I found the hotel where I’d intended staying was full.
  ‘Sorry, sir,’ the receptionist said. ‘All our rooms are taken. We have a group. One hundred and eighty children.’
This was no doubt great for the hotel, but it was a nuisance for me, although sharing a hotel with a hundred and eighty children didn’t sound appealing either. I limped back down the hill, trying not to jar my bad back. A man asked if I was looking for a hotel.
  ‘What’s your budget?’ he said.
He could offer me a room for 700 rupees. That was better than I’d been expecting in Naini Tal for anything more habitable than an orc pit, and I wondered about the catch.
  ‘With a bathroom?’
  ‘Of course.’
  “Hot water?’
  ‘Yes, hot water. Of course.’
I said I’d look at it. It turned out to be a top storey room at the Hotel Lake View, and it did indeed have a lake view. It had hot water from 7 until ten in the morning, with a proper shower head, not just a bucket and cup. It did smell slightly mouldy, and everything had that run-down air typical of Indian hotel rooms in the sub-thousand rupees range, but it was good enough and I liked the view.

Although worn out from an early start and a bad back, I walked the length of the Mall to the Mallital end of town. Cyberia’s sign still hung where I remembered it, but the Internet Cafe section, where a gentle waiter had come to recognise and look after me, had gone. Only a narrow, windowless corridor full of aging PCs and mould remained. A link to the past had been broken; a ghost laid to rest.

Machan still perched above the Mall, too. I didn’t go in. I’d eaten there with Krishna and his brother and photographed them there while we waited for our food. I wondered what had become of them and whether Krishna’s name really was Krishna. He was a character: one of those people who come into your life at just the right time, briefly, then vanish as if some cosmic game-player had decided to ignore the rules and had thrown in something no reasonable person would accept – a Deus ex machina, I suppose.

I stayed three nights at Naini Tal and liked it more than I’d expected, although I couldn’t work out why. It was full of tourists – all Indian except for one or two obvious foreigners – and geared up for profiting from them. On the second day I visited Sattal for the birds, which eventually began to show themselves shortly before I needed to work out how to get back to Naini Tal.

During the two full days I spent at Naini Tal, I visited the zoo three times. The first time I just wanted to see what was there and what had changed, the second time with some specific photographic goals in mind, and the final time to go at a different time of day when the light would be coming from a different angle.

On each visit, the zoo was awash with visitors, and of all the attractions – the tiger, the bears, the leopards, the red pandas and so on – number one appeared to be me. I lost count of the number of times someone approached me to ask the usual questions – Which country? What is your name? Are you alone? – and sometimes whether I was a professional photographer. Either initially or eventually, I’d be asked for a photograph: either a selfie with me or for me to photograph them. I was happy to oblige and did my best to look as if I was enjoying the event, which was no trouble at all because I was.

I caught a shared jeep back to Bhowali and shared a taxi back to Almora. The driver drove like a maniac and nearly killed us.

We’d been following close behind a truck and a small van. The truck had slowed and stopped; the van did likewise. Our driver, though, had decided to peer at something on the side of the road, and before I could even gasp we were careening headlong into the back of the van.

How he avoided rear-ending it remains a mystery. He braked hard and veered – and this took the little Suzuki straight into the path of an oncoming jeep. Only good luck and  more attentive driver in the jeep saved us. No one got hit; the only damage was to our trust in the driver, who responded by driving even faster, perhaps to prove how excellent a driver he really was. Mostly I’m impressed with the skill and care of the professional drivers, who can judge accurately whether a manoeuvre is safe or not. Not this guy, though – in addition to the near miss, he overtook on a blind corner where an oncoming vehicle would have been impossible to avoid.

I stayed one night at Almora – just long enough to find the people I’d photographed and give them the prints I’d had done in Naini Tal – and caught a shared jeep to Kausani. The ride took a couple of hours and I never ended up squashed into my seat, but sitting sideways in the back is never comfortable. Still, I survived better than the two women in the front and second-row window seats. The driver kept those windows open so the women could lean out and vomit; one, leaning out and retching for several minutes, eventually slumped back into her seat, tears streaming down her cheeks. I thought of the SeaLegs in my bag, but even if I could have persuaded her to take one, it would have been useless, because by that time we were approaching Kausani.

When I got out of the jeep, a man neatly attired in grey slacks and a cricketer’s vest over a business shirt approached me.
  ‘Excuse me, sir,’ he said in impeccable English, ‘but I wonder if you are wanting accommodation?’
It was a beautiful example of educated Indian English: polite, clear, with a slight touch of formality, and not quite how someone in, say, New Zealand, would say it. He looked like a slightly older version of my memory of the manager of the Hotel Uttarakhand, which is exactly who he turned out to be.
  ‘Hotel Uttarakhand?’ I said, and he smiled.
  ‘I work there,’ he said. ‘Please, come with me.’

He picked up the larger of my two bags and led me up the steps to the hotel. I told him I had to be careful with my budget because of the cash problem. He nodded and asked if I’d like a room with a balcony, and showed me one at the end of the upper storey. It was beautiful and I wanted it desperately but didn’t know if I could afford it.
  ‘Usually it is 1850,’ he said, and I felt a twinge of dismay, ‘ but for you ...’ he hesitated briefly, ‘... one thousand.’
I accepted instantly. I’d intended staying only one night, but with a room like that and a spectacular view of the Himalaya, ..., well, I knew I needed a full day. Two nights, I decided.

While I completed the registration – always a lengthy process – someone made a pot of coffee for me. I sat in the sun, drinking the coffee and drinking in the sight of Nanda Devi and Trisul and the other mountains in the adjacent Himalaya. Even in the bluish late morning light they looked magnificent.

Later I walked along the road, enjoying the warmth, enjoying the birds, and enjoying time with a family who called me over to drink chai with them. The son brought out a plate of biscuits and something that looked like fudge. Sweet, dark, and a little chewy, it had a slight caramel flavour. I asked one of the men what it was called. He conferred with the woman.
  ‘Chocolate,’ he said. ‘We call it chocolate.’
It wasn’t like the chocolate I knew, but it was delicious.

Late in the afternoon, I sat on my balcony watching shadows creep up the pine-forested hillsides. The haze in the huge basin between Kausani and the Himalaya turned reddish-brown and looked like smog, and I hoped it wasn’t. Two doves flew out from the forest opposite the hotel and over that basin, through the smog/haze, through that vast space, towards the mountains. Trisul had just begun to lose its blue cast and take on a warmer glow, and the freedom of those two birds, the freedom of flight, filled me with a longing for something I could never have – an imagined freedom only.

I took a long time to realise I had another kind of freedom, one the doves could never have. I had the freedom to imagine.

1. I'm way behind on sharing this journey, so I'll have to start skipping bits. If you want a visual impression of where I'm currently travelling, follow me on Instagram.

1. A common sight in India: roasting groundnuts on the street. The smell is delicious.
2. The driver for the Tanakpur-Champawat route. 
3. He cooked a good bun-omelette.
4. Champawat: the modern town.
5. Porters at Almora
6. The manager of the Hotel Uttarakhand
7. English was a problem when trying to communicate with this family, but the warmth of their welcome wasn't.
8. One of the staff at the Hotel Uttarakhand. I liked his quiet dignity.

Photos and original text © 2017 Pete McGregor

31 December 2016

In Nepal: Bardia and Mahendranagar

I stayed five days and six nights at Bardia Jungle Cottage, and for the first two days struggled with a bad headache that took a little of the edge off the full-day jungle walks. But, on the first day, walking with Shiva the guide, Subash, Jorn from Holland, and Flo, from France, we heard a male tiger calling in the jungle a little further upriver.  The evening I’d arrived, Jorn and Shiva had returned at dusk having just seen a tiger at close quarters: just fifty metres away. Jorn’s camera had seized up, but he showed me the photograph he’d made with his phone. It was excellent.

Shiva and I spent the second day in the jungle and neither saw nor heard tigers. We saw rhinos, though: close – almost too close. We could hear the giant animals feeding, and I saw the horn and muzzle of one as it browsed in the metres-high grass, then the sudden snort as one winded us and they crashed away – fortunately, not in our direction. For a while I forgot the headache.

But things other than the headache afflicted me, too. I’d woken that morning from a dream full of nostalgia, of yearning for the best of the days of my childhood, when the world was still large and mysterious; when a person could vanish for months or years and return with tales of people who had never met anyone from a strange and distant land, people whose customs seemed to us strange and different; when vast areas of the planet were still unmapped or at least untrodden by western feet, or even any human foot; when not everything felt known. I knew as I woke that the yearning was romanticism, but I still couldn’t completely shake the sadness.

Perhaps I’d been affected by the events of the last two days. Even in that moment of wildness when I’d heard the tiger calling, the background was suffused not with the roaring of the void, but by the faint, far-off roaring of traffic and towns. I’d grown up with tales of Jim Corbett’s time in the jungles of India, and some of my nostalgia must have been for those tales and the imaginings they conjured. As I’d stood in the dust of the river bed and studied the pug marks of a male tiger, I’d thought of Corbett. But even when I’d first read his stories as a child, those times had all but gone, just as Corbett even then had long gone from India to spend the rest of his life in Kenya. The past had gone; the past is irretrievable except through memory and imagination, and both are hopeless guides to what actually happened. Maybe this, then, is one of the reasons I keep these journals: as a safeguard against the short-comings of memory and a reign on misleading imagination.

By the third day I needed a rest. The headache had almost gone but that and two long days of heat and dust had left me worn down. I couldn’t shake the feeling that if I took a rest day, that would be the day I’d have seen the tiger, but I also knew that if I didn’t skip a third consecutive jungle walk I wouldn’t see one. Convinced by this irrefutable logic, I told myself I’d come to Bardia to see lots of animals and birds and a tiger would be a bonus, and I took a rest day.

Taking it easy, I walked slowly down the dusty road towards the Wild Trak lodge where Joe was staying, passing most of the other lodges on the way. I asked after him but he was in a jeep in the jungle. The place seemed well maintained, but the room I was shown stank of mould. The double duvet in my room had needed a good airing too, but the room itself was OK, and the single duvet I’d used instead didn’t suffer from the mouldy smell.

Along the road I’d seen little to start with, but, as is usually the way, the birds began to show themselves. I photographed red-whiskered bulbuls and managed some distant but adequate record shots of Indian pond herons, lapwings, a common kingfisher, greenshanks, and a redshank, but my heart wasn’t entirely in it and I wasn’t sure why. I was going through the motions.

Hans and Mirian, the Dutch couple who’d arrived the previous day had rented bicycles and had met a young German couple who, coincidentally, I’d spoken with at Wild Trak. Back at Bardia Jungle Cottage, we sat at one of the outside tables and talked about travelling. Hans ordered a beer, a Tuborg. I felt comfortable with my new friends, so I thought ‘Why not?’ and ordered one too.

I explained my predicament. I could carry on to Mahendranagar in the far west of Nepal and cross the border to Banbasa, but that would return me to India sooner than I intended. Alternatively, I could return to Kathmandu, but that also had problems. I’d scored a cheap flight from Delhi to India, but all the return flights were expensive, and I’d already spent a substantial sum on the flight from Kathmandu to Nepalgunj. I could cross the land border, but that would put me well out of my way and I’d waste days getting back to Delhi, then have to head up to Uttarakhand – a roundabout way to get where I wanted to go.

Then there was the problem of getting from Bardia back to Kathmandu. The thought of a thirteen-hour bus trip to Pokhara was more than I could bear – I’d done that trip in the other direction in 2014 and had sworn never again – but flying back from Nepalgunj was out of the question. Then the German woman suggested breaking up that trip with a stop at Tansen. Hans and Mirian agreed immediately; they’d stayed at Tansen and liked it. The Germans jad liked it too. However, that still left the problem of how to get from Kathmandu, which I’d have liked to return to for a few more days, back to Delhi – flying to Kathmandu had been cheap, but the flights back to Delhi were proving to be exorbitant.

But I had food for thought and a few more days to think about it, so I didn’t need to make a decision right then.

I walked the other way along the road in the evening but didn’t feel like going far. On the way back, a family called out to me. I replied and walked over to see them and ask if they’d like a photograph. The young man straddling his motorbike nodded and gave instructions to what I assume were his younger siblings. The toddler burst out crying, and a woman came out of the house, laughing, to pick the child up. The younger of the two girls, though, followed instructions and posed for me, and after a couple of attempts and a little teasing, I managed to get her to smile. I showed them the result and they seemed pleased.
I introduced myself.
  ‘I’m Pete,’ I said.
The young guy’s name was Ahmeed. I thanked him for letting me photograph his sister.
  ‘Danyabad,’ I said.
  ‘You speak Nepali?’
  ‘No. Only danyabad. Namaste.’ I paused. ‘Aloo ghobi.’
We laughed. I’d used the joke before, but it always worked. I asked if he spoke English and he shook his head then held his finger and thumb fractionally apart.

We’d managed some communication, though.

On the way back, I came across a tall Dutch man, with short grey hair, crouching at the side of the road photographing a couple of tethered buffalo. He, too, had seen a tiger in the park, albeit briefly because everyone had got excited and started making a lot of noise. I was beginning to get the impression that everyone who visited Bardia saw a tiger except me. I could only dream of a sighting as good as Jorn’s, and the young German couple had seen one across the river; the photographers with big lenses got excellent pictures, they said.

Ronald, the Dutchman, had also encountered a cash problem of a different sort. He’d expected to be able to use his credit card to pay for his jeep safaris and jungle walks and hadn’t brought enough cash. No problem, his lodge manager had said, you can pay when you get home; I trust you; why should I not trust you?

The account was good to hear. I’d expected Ronald to say the manager had offered to drive him to Nepalgunj to get cash from an ATM, but I suppose the economics of that would have been marginal, and the advantages in terms of goodwill and reputation were more important.

My last day in the jungle failed again to deliver a tiger sighting. I’d said I was philosophical about it, but after hearing about some excellent sightings during my stay, I had to admit some disappointment. Even the rhino encounters had been either more distant or less visible than at Chitwan ten years ago. That was no reflection on Bardia; I’d just dipped out this time. I did see giant hornbills, though, and sightings of those were reputedly rarer than tiger sightings. Somehow this didn’t entirely compensate, though, because if tiger sightings were as common as reputed, I’d been unlucky not to have seen one.

Breakfast was banana pancakes with honey and no banana. This was usual. The menu listed green tea, so I ordered some, but there was no green tea. I asked for a small pot of black tea without sugar; the tea was indeed black – almost lethally so – and it came with a bowl of sugar. I liked the initiative: to have asked for no sugar and received some, fortunately not already added to the tea, was better than asking for sugar and not getting it. The previous day I’d said to Hans and Mirian that when ordering food here you expected what you got. They hadn’t understood at first but soon learned, and any inconvenience was more than compensated for by the good humour of the staff.

Hugely experienced travellers everywhere except South America, Hans and Mirian had decided to take the bus all the way from Bardia to Kathmandu. I couldn’t imagine how uncomfortable that would be – I didn’t want to imagine it – but Mirian insisted she’d sleep most of the way. She could sleep anywhere, she said, and being a couple, they’d have seats together so they wouldn’t have a greasy-haired stranger using them as a pillow the way I’d had in 2014 on my 13-hour bus journey from Pokhara to Ambassa.

They were leaving in the middle of the afternoon, and I’d miss their company. Once again I’d be on my own, with the freedom that confers, tinged with the slight melancholy of being anonymous once more in a strange land. For the last few hours together we sat at the only outside table with an umbrella for shade, and we talked and read and ate lunch, and later Hans and I shared a beer and then another. Finally, the time came and, on the spur of the moment, I joined them in the jeep to Thakurdwara just a few minutes down the dusty road.
  ‘Come and stay with us in Holland,’ Hans said, and although I knew he meant it, I knew I never would – not, at least, unless my life changed radically. I walked back to Bardia Jungle Cottage, stopping to talk briefly to some local people and sometimes photographing them, and slowly getting used to yet another change.


My turn came, and I was pleased to be moving on and sad to be leaving. After five days and six nights, I’d become used to the routine and had even begun to think of my room with its minor shortcomings, including the only mosquito in Thakurdwara (it constantly woke me on my last night until I finally and deliberately extirpated the species from the region), as a kind of home. I’d liked the helpful, welcoming staff, even though my attempts to photograph them mostly failed to reflect their character. The jeep driver in particular had an excellent sense of humour and was clearly knowledgeable about the animals; when he and Subash had collected Joe and me from Ambassa, he’d heard me say to Subash that I’d like to see a Bengal florican, and although he had almost no English he recognised the species name and immediately explained to Subash that now was the wrong season – no Bengal florican. He laughed a lot, but in the only photograph he looked as grim as if I’d told him he’d just lost his entire family.

Premi accompanied me in the jeep and saw I got on the right bus. He wanted to know when I’d come back, and I felt touched by his appreciation of my stay, but I couldn’t say when I’d be back. Still, the time at Bardia had turned out to be more enjoyable than I’d expected and the thought of returning appealed. I hadn’t seen a tiger. But I had heard one calling, and on my last night at a quarter past eleven a chital had begun an alarm call, and soon after that another joined in. Perhaps a tiger had been prowling not far from where I lay, half awake, thinking of Jim Corbett and my family. We all grew up on Corbett’s tales; they’re part of the family folklore, and I hoped that in a few days’ time I’d be able to add to that folklore by visiting Champawat, where Corbett finally killed the most notorious man-eating tiger in history.

But, in just the two years since I’d first visited Bardia, Premi seemed to have grown noticeably older. It was the kind of aging that made me wonder whether I’d ever see him again, and I wasn’t sure I could visit Bardia knowing he was no longer there.
Already I missed Thakurdwara, too. I’d had just one reason for visiting Bardia: the wildlife. Yet, in the short time I’d stayed, I’d realised one of its main attractions was the way the local people so warmly and genuinely welcomed visitors. I hadn’t counted the number of smiles and waves and namastes, but if I had, I’d have lost count. Several times I was invited to come and photograph, or just come and talk, and never once did it feel as if anyone had an ulterior motive.

A few hours squeezed into a minibus and another hour on a slow but more comfortable local bus got me to Mahendranagar, the small border town for crossing into India, where I checked into the Hotel Opera. The room would have been comfortable if my back hadn’t been causing problems. The minibus ride, squashed in with too many people in a position that meant I was sitting twisted for much of the time, had affected me more than I’d thought, and this confirmed my intention to stay another day and hope my back came right.

The room had some minor inconveniences, like wifi that kept vanishing, but the staff were thoroughly professional and accommodating. This was a risk: it was so easy to relax that I was tempted to stay there and not venture into town. I had nothing in particular to do, and the hotel restaurant turned out to be excellent, with cheap beer, too.

I was aware of the temptation, though, and avoided it. I did spend some time in my room finishing the first blog post, but I thought of how Hans and Mirian would have spent time exploring Mahendranagar and not sitting around. I’d thought of the young German couple too: they were travelling around India on a rented Royal Enfield and were exploring central Asia in a van they’d outfitted themselves. Both couples made the most of wherever they were, and my own travelling seemed low-key and unadventurous in comparison.

I did wonder, though, how much their friends got to share of their experiences. By the time they got home, they’d have a huge store of stories, but how much would they remember, and how much would they remember accurately? Most importantly, would they remember accurately what they felt? Most travellers know the effect someone so aptly called ‘rosy retrospection’: the tendency to remember the good times and subconsciously downplay or forget completely the times of despondency and loneliness. Even difficult but eventful times can be easier to remember than those times when, alone, out of contact with friends and family, and in unfamiliar and uninspiring surroundings it’s easy to look forward to the end of the trip.

As experience accumulates, a traveller learns to recognise this and can therefore deal with it better, understanding its causes and realising it’s usually fleeting. None other than one of the greatest travellers, Colin Thubron, admitted feeling worn out and dejected at one stage of his journeying through China, and when I’d read that I’d felt the twin pangs of empathy and relief. Empathy because I’d felt like that often on my early travels and sometimes on my later ones. Relief because suddenly it had seemed OK to admit those feelings. So many people apparently need to project the persona of the vastly experienced traveller who does ‘authentic’ things and never feels worn down or in need of the company of friends, but if this persona represents them honestly, they’re either rarer than snow leopard sightings or utterly absorbed with their own significance.

I couldn’t imagine any traveller deserving more respect than Colin Thubron, and if it was OK for him to have down periods on his travels, it was OK for me too. I wondered, too, how much time he spent writing when he was travelling. Travelling is always a matter of drawing a line between living a life and recording it, and each of us draws that line differently, and for different reasons. I had decided long ago that travelling mainly to experience the travelling for myself was unjustifiable – for me, at least – and I wanted to share a life that – again, to me – seemed worth documenting.

But this ignored the fact that the major benefit of travelling is not what you do, but who you become. I hoped I was becoming a better person, but that wasn’t going to happen if I spent most of my time sitting in hotel rooms. The irony was that I was thinking about these things when I wasn’t experiencing them. I wasn’t feeling down and dejected, and although plunging into the madhouse of Mahendranagar felt a little daunting, I knew I’d end up glad I’d done it.

And that’s exactly what happened. Mahendranagar was resolutely non-western except for the ubiquitous advertising in English for Samsung and mobile network companies – a decade ago, Coca-Cola had been the inescapable presence in English but that had faded like the signs themselves – but 95% of everything written was in Hindi, which made even less sense to me than Chinese, in which the characters are at least separated.

But most of the people were friendly and welcoming, with an abundance of smiles and namastes. A great many wanted to practise their limited English, too, and I lost count of the number of times I heard the three-phrase greeting, ‘Hello. How are you? Where are you going?’
‘How are you?’ always  had the stress on the last word: ‘How are YOU?’

I stopped for chai and became the centre of attention for a group of young guys who looked as if they’d enjoy being photographed. They looked pleased with the result, and I thought about trying to find somewhere to get the photographs printed. I already had some photographs of a couple of men sewing mattresses outside their shop and no doubt would have others before I left Mahendranagar.

Photographing wasn’t the only form of interaction, though – far from it. I had a great many brief conversations and some longer ones, including one with an off-duty policeman.
  ‘On duty at two o’clock,’ he said.
He wanted to know whether I liked Nepal.
  ‘I love Nepal,’ I said, truthfully.
He beamed, and later he asked me the same question, presumably for the enjoyment of hearing me say I loved his country.
  ‘Any problem, you go to police station,’ he said, and pointed down the road.
I assured him I’d go to the police station if I had any problem, and I thanked him, genuinely. I couldn’t envisage any problems, but I felt looked after, as if I had a friend who would make things happen if I asked for help. It was a good feeling.

I returned to the town in the afternoon, looking for a photo lab, but the man at reception had pointed out they’d be closed because it was a holiday: Saturday. Tomorrow morning they’d be open, he said.

Another reason to stay another day.

Mahendranagar almost trapped me. I’d grown to like it; my few days there quickly became comfortable. The hotel staff knew me, and one of the waiters in the restaurant got to know my breakfast order.
  ‘Banana pancake,’ I said, and he repeated it.
  ‘Cornflakes …’
  ‘With COLD milk,’ he said: for some reason, hot milk was standard on cornflakes.
I paused.
  ‘Cup of black tea,’ he said, and I laughed and congratulated him. He grinned and disappeared to the kitchen.

One morning I visited the meat and vegetable market. The vegetables were beautifully displayed, bright, and diverse. The meat, mostly chicken, was either still alive or already executed. A cluster of filthy white chooks huddled on the ground, apparently unable to escape although I saw no sign they were tethered. Perhaps they were unable to walk after having been confined their entire, short lives in overcrowded cages, or maybe they were paralysed with the horror of their situation. I didn’t know and didn’t want to do too much guessing.

Further on, a man waved all of India’s flies from a row of plucked and gutted chicken carcases. With each pass of his whisk, the flies roared into the air then settled again. Another man brought a cleaver down accurately onto the joint of a chicken leg that was either smoked or old enough to look like it. The chopping block was well stained with countless dismemberments. The place looked mediaeval and horrific.

Late in the afternoon, I walked down City Hall Road past the small slum to the highway. As I passed the slum, four men held down a screaming pig. I walked on, and the screaming suddenly stopped. I looked across and the men still held down the pig as another pig stood close by, watching. A tiny, scrawny puppy trotted along the middle of the road, and no one paid it any mind other than to avoid hitting it with their scooters and motorbikes. The puppy stopped by a large, well-fed dog that clearly wasn’t one of its parents and looked hopeful, but the big dog didn’t acknowledge its existence. I had a bad feeling about the puppy’s future but could do nothing, so again I walked on.

Ahead, a man limped along the road, his right leg loose and his foot turned outward. On the side of the road, black, foetid water oozed towards who knows where. It stank in the late afternoon. The heat had gone out of the sun, although it still hung high in the sky; now it had to struggle through the grey-brown haze, so it looked like an orange disc. Two sacred cows fought, clashing heads on the side of the highway, but no one paid them any mind, either.

In the smoggy dusk, a small, quiet man tried to interest me in a room in his guest house. It was the most polite, gentle, timid attempt I’d ever encountered, and I was almost tempted to stay another day just to bring him some happiness. But his guest house was near the bus station, the main highway, and the busy Campus Road, and the night would have been sleepless.

I didn’t know why I was beginning to develop a real affection for Mahendranagar.

I’d photographed the chai wallah, who I now knew better than anyone in Mahendranagar outside the hotel, and I couldn’t leave without giving him a print. He had a calm, gentle manner that extended to the thin little kitten living under his counter and occasionally venturing out into the sun during quiet periods. It resisted the urge to investigate my wiggling fingers, but the chai wallah saw my attempts and smiled.

I’d had some prints done at a small hole-in-the-wall shop in the main bazaar and had given them to one of the mattress-makers. The prints were muddy and awful but I had no choice, and the man’s expression when I handed him the prints was priceless. He didn’t know what to say and had no English to say it anyway, but he kept looking at the prints then looking at me and smiling as if he’d won the lottery. He held out his hand, and I shook it and said ‘Danyabad’ – I wanted to thank him for letting me photograph him – and he looked again at the prints and made the ‘OK’ gesture, still smiling madly.

I had to leave before I choked up.

I wanted the chai wallah to have a print, and I’d found a Fuji lab, but this was apparently where the first set of prints had been done: the second set was identically muddy and just as awful. The chai wallah didn’t mind, though. I gave him the print; he took and looked at it, then recognised himself and looked up in sheer amazement and delight. A bystander took it from him and handed it around, and I began to wonder what state it would be in by the time he got it back, if he ever did. Eventually it returned, safely but no doubt covered in fingerprints. He wouldn’t let me pay for my chai, and he shook my hand. I’d grown fond of his gentle, efficient, unhurried manner, and I liked him even more for his appreciation of the little kitten.

While I’d waited for the prints, I’d had a professional shave. A young barber had called out to me from his doorway. He wanted a hundred rupees for the shave, but that sounded like a lot, and I started to turn him down.
  ‘OK, fifty rupees,’ he said.
It was the easiest haggling I'd ever done.

One of the other men in his shop sat me down and began the prep. He shaved me carefully and precisely, then trimmed my beard, just as precisely. He even used long, muderously sharp scissors to trim my nose hairs. To flinch was unthinkable. I admired his professionalism, the way he appeared to take pride in his skill at snipping the nose hairs of his clients. In New Zealand, the idea of a job like that would have been either hilarious or depressing, but, having experienced it here, I felt humbled.

He was desperate to barber my hair, too, but having seen the trend, which was even at that moment being executed in the chair next to mine, I had no intention of letting him near my hair with any sharp instrument. It was too much for him, though, so he wet my hair, applied some styling cream, and massaged my head so hard it felt like being beaten up. When I walked out of the shop, I felt a little unsteady on my feet. I think I was mildly concussed.

The style was dreadful, as I’d known it would be. He’d swept it back then added an extreme part on the right-hand side. This, I knew, was one of the trends, but he had no idea about fitting a style to a client. He only charged me 50 rupees, though, and thanked me for my custom. I made a beeline to my room and restyled my hair to its usual unkempt state. The beard trim was excellent, but I could detect no difference in breathing through my nostrils.

I’d spent four nights in Mahendranagar and had grown to like it, but three days was enough. I was restless. I wanted to be moving again. I’d be sad to leave my friends – the hotel staff, the chai wallah in particular, others I’d spoken to and who now at least recognised me – but I wanted to travel through Kumaon and Garwhal again, then rejoin my friends in Delhi and Chandigarh; I wanted to visit Bharatpur for the third time; and I wanted eventually to get to Jamnagar in the hope I could meet once more with Jam Sahib. After that, who knew, but those people and places were calling me, and I needed to answer.

1. The photographs have mostly been prepared in haste so I could get this post published before the end of the year. Some have appeared already on my Instagram account, along with many others.

1. Premi was one of the original guides at Bardia and is something of an institution there. 
2. Not sure precisely what this is, but Shiva called it a flycatcher.
3. Common kingfisher.
4. Some of Bardia's smaller inhabitants were impressive, too. The webs of these big spiders were everywhere.
5. Hans and Mirian wait for the bus at Thajurdwara.
6. Subash at Bardia Jungle Cottage on the morning I left.
7. Scaly-breasted munia at Bardia
8. The chai wallah at Mahendranagar.

Photos and original text © 2016 Pete McGregor

17 December 2016

The flight to Nepal

On the flight from Delhi (figurative as well as literal) I had a window seat next to an elderly Nepalese woman and her daughter. They lived in Kathmandu and had attended the daughter’s graduation with a Masters degree in social work. I asked about Kathmandu’s recovery from the terrible earthquake a year and a half ago. The young woman hesitated, then replied that the city was recovering well.
  ‘About three months to get going again,’ she said.
Given the devastation I’d seen on the news reports, I found this astonishing, but when I finally got to Thamel I saw almost no sign the city had been so badly smashed – if indeed it had been. The mainstream media had, as usual, focused on the worst-hit places, and those reports suggested Nepal would take the better part of a decade to recover, but all I saw of the aftermath was a ruined brick building visible only through my bathroom window.

Much had changed, but much had stayed the same. The streets seemed familiar without being identifiable; I kept coming across places I was sure I remembered from two years earlier, but the shops in those places had changed. I recognised the names of some cafés and bakeries and restaurants, though.

But the overwhelming impression was of being overwhelmed. The streets, narrow, cobbled, and either dusty or with small puddles where shopkeepers had splashed water to lay the dust, were lined with a vast number of small shops selling similar goods: trekking gear, of course; cashmere shawls; souvenirs ranging from small trinkets to enormous brass statues of Ganesh, Kali, Buddha, and others; adventures of all kinds involving outdoor activities; flights, bus trips, and so on. Almost anything could be bought, including peace, enlightenment, and freedom from consumerism in the form of yoga and meditation retreats. Yet, despite the variety, the streets had a predictable sameness. There was so much choice that choice was impossible.

I chose the Roadhouse Café for an evening meal, mostly because I wanted a change from dal and rice. A pizza – so characteristic of anywhere catering for even occasional visitors in Nepal or India that it had become authentic Nepalese or Indian fare in the 21st century – sounded good; a beer sounded even better. I wasn’t fussy, so I ordered a margharita with black olives and a Gorkha beer, which turned out to be a 650 ml bottle. The pizza was similarly huge, but I surprised myself by eating the lot. I surprised myself even more by feeling unaffected by more beer than I could remember drinking in a long time (and that wasn’t because I’d drunk so much I couldn’t remember how much I’d drunk). I found my way back to my room without getting lost and without even stumbling – no mean feat in Kathmandu after dark, even when completely sober.

At breakfast in the dining area of the Hotel Holiday House, an Australian milled around in a T-shirt and puffer vest, his hands thrust into his jeans pockets and his shoulders hunched against the cold. A woman from the US joined him, her hair still damp from the shower.
  ‘A bit cold for short sleeves,’ I said, as they seated themselves at the table next to mine.
  ‘Yeah,’ he said, then, realising an admission he was feeling cold was at odds with the persona he was attempting to project, added, ‘but after you’ve come down from the mountains, everything feels warm.’

They appeared to be acquaintances, recently met, maybe even on the same trek. While I wrote and attended to breakfast, they competed for dominance in the most-accomplished-traveller category. It was impossible not to listen. He took a nil admirari approach: nothing impressed him; everything was yeah, whatever. She took the more common approach of listing achievements and apparent insider knowledge. When she mentioned she had a keen interest in tea, I began actively eavesdropping but lost interest when she failed to mention anything that might have confirmed her claim. No mention of Darjeeling or Oolong, or even green or black tea; no detail at all, in fact. I suspected her interest lay in herbal infusions rather than traditional tea.

Despite this competition, there was no aggression or irritation in their conversation, and they seemed comfortable in each other’s company.

On a crowded street in the morning, a tall, lean, man in a pale shirt, dark slacks, and polished shoes marched along with a small, fair-haired child sprawled on his shoulder. He kept turning around and telling things to the two women who followed several paces behind. Both wore long skirts and had black headscarves pinned to their hair. One also had a small, fair-haired child looking back over her shoulder, while the other held the hand of yet another small child of similar age and appearance to the other two. The group moved with purpose along the street, led by the man. They appeared to be on a mission.

I stopped at the famous Pumpernickel café and bakery for a vanilla swirl and a cappuccino. Both were good and I didn’t have to wait long. A diverse clientele almost filled the place but I found a spare table in the courtyard. During my entire stay, a young woman with a US accent talked animatedly to her laptop screen. Skype had been a novelty on my first visit to India; now it was a convenience whose absence could be an annoyance. Two tough-looking but laughing Nepalese men joked about one’s thinning hair, which contrasted markedly with the long, thick ponytail of the other. They looked like wild but good-natured guys: the sort who could get you into a lot of trouble but would get you out of it, too.

An elderly couple sat at a table nearby, drinking Everest beers. I had no idea what nationality they might be, but they looked relaxed, enjoying the beer and each other’s company in that easy way two people who’ve liked each other for a long time understand each other. Further away, two women, one middle-aged, the other much younger, sat smoking cigarettes. The older woman had short hair with a mini-mullet; she had the gaunt, sallow look of someone ravaged by a lifetime of smoking. Both women – mother and daughter, I guessed – had an air of ennui approaching depression. I couldn’t help wondering whether they’d ever smiled or laughed, but maybe I was judging them unfairly and they were just worn out from long travelling.

I was writing and not minding my own business, although I was trying to be kind in my thoughts but not always succeeding, when two attractive young women came up to my table and asked if they might share it. Of course, I said, and shuffled my plate, mug and notebook further across the table to give them more room. They began talking in what sounded like French; I thought I recognised a few words, but sometimes I thought I heard Spanish, too.
  ‘You are from France?’ I asked.
  ‘Almost,’ one said, laughing a little. ‘We are from Portugal.’
I threw up my hands in horror and apologised.
  ‘No, no,’ she insisted, ‘it’s all right. People often make that mistake.’
I told her how people usually guessed I was from Australia but I was actually from New Zealand. They exclaimed with delight. They had a friend who had recently moved to New Zealand with her partner, and they were intending to visit soon.

I asked about their travels.
  ‘Are you going trekking?’
They’d just got back and now weren’t entirely sure where they’d go next, although eventually they’d re-enter India and go to Sikkim. Their journey – India, Nepal, India – was following the same pattern as mine, although they were spending longer in Nepal: one month.

Their names were Nadia and Ines. Nadia had just bought a hard-covered notebook made from handmade paper and intended using it to record her travels. She’d been keeping very brief hand-written notes, she said. Ines picked up the notebook.
  ‘It’s so light,’ she said.
It didn’t look light to me, but when Ines handed it to me I had the same sensation I’ve felt when holding a small bird – that the thing felt far lighter than it had any right to be: a kind of cognitive dissonance. It was my turn to exclaim with delight. Nadia looked pleased. I hoped she’d fill it with wonderful stories; I, however, was content with my Moleskine cahiers and my fountain pens, which wouldn’t at all suit rough handmade paper.

She looked across at my cahier and complimented my calligraphy. I thanked her but pointed out it wasn’t calligraphy, just handwriting. She smiled and shrugged.

Eventually I said I was just finishing and would leave them to their lunch. I’d enjoyed talking with them, and I left Pumpernickel thinking that despite my love of solitude and the company of animals and wild places, perhaps I fitted the true definition of an extrovert, even if I was far from the popular misconception. I’ve never been the life of the party, but meetings like that with Nadia and Ines often leave me with renewed energy.

The hotel manager had suggested a taxi to the airport would take only about 20 minutes in the morning. I found this difficult to believe after the trip to the hotel from the airport had taken about an hour, much of that stationary in Kathmandu’s infamous traffic. Consequently, I arranged an early taxi, but the manager was right. I’d forgotten it was Saturday, and the roads were almost free of traffic. I arrived at the airport for my flight to Nepalgunj at 6.40 a.m., comfortably within the final check-in time, only to find the Yeti Airlines counter for Flight 421 would open at 7.30. If I’d listened to the manager, I could have enjoyed a leisurely and comfortable breakfast at the hotel.

I settled down to wait, thankful for the small, grimy pad of blue closed-cell foam I carry on most of my journeys – every overseas trip, and every Ruahine trip for as long as I can remember. The cold metal airport seats were apparently designed for maximum discomfort, and I have no natural padding. That little blue pad, and the small roll of black electrical tape that’s fixed everything from holes in mosquito nets to adapter plugs falling out of wall sockets, are the most useful travel items I know, other than money.

In the seats in front of me, a group of middle-aged Japanese made last-minute adjustments to their carry-on bags. All wore trekking gear: down jackets, quick-drying trousers, light walking boots. Some carried serious camera gear. A distinguished-looking man in a silver puffer jacket looked out the windows and exclaimed in Japanese, pointing as he did so. A woman turned to look then got to her feet and hurried to the window.

A troop of macaques was running past. As the woman reached the window, a baby macaque sprinted past to catch up with the other monkeys. The woman called out in delight and crouched for a better view. After the monkeys had passed, she turned back and I smiled, showing I’d enjoyed the sight also.

She stopped and, searching for the words, said, ‘Monkeys. I think is very rare.’
I nodded, although I knew they were common.
  ‘In India, many monkeys,’ I said. It was all I could think of as a response.
She leaned towards me, listening carefully.
  ‘Ah so,’ she said, nodding. The phrase sounded so stereotypical it took me aback, and I didn’t know whether she understood. But that was beside the point: we’d shared the moment.

In the crowded departure lounge, I struck up a conversation with a young guy originally from New York State. Joe had been teaching English in Japan for two-and-a-half years and was spending his savings on travelling. His camera gear and other electronic paraphernalia weighed far more than the rest of his travel gear. He wasn’t sure whether he wanted to make a profession of his photography.
  ‘People are reluctant to pay you to go to interesting places and take photos,’ he said. ‘Now everyone’s got their own camera or phone and they want their own photos.’

I agreed and pointed out the risk of killing the thing you love by trying to earn a living from it. He nodded. He was obviously serious about documenting his travels, and on several occasions he GoPro-ed sections of our journey: from Nepalgunj airport into town, where he tried unsuccessfully to withdraw cash from four different ATMs; on the bus leaving Nepalgunj; and on the bone-jarring, dust-drenched jeep ride from Ambassa to Thakurdwara, the village on the edge of Bardia National Park.

He was quiet, with a relaxed, gentle manner, and he looked a little like Matt Damon. After Bardia, he’d be doing a 14-day vipassana silence meditation. The contrast with Kathmandu and Nepalgunj couldn’t have been greater.

He showed me his book of postcards. Each page comprised the outline of an illustration to be hand-coloured, then the page could be removed to make a post-card. He opened the book to a picture of an octopus grasping a treasure chest.
  ‘I’m not artistic,’ he said, ‘so this is something I can do to show the person I’m writing to that I’m thinking of them.’

The colouring – fine and careful, with thoughtfully chosen hues – looked artistic to me, and I didn’t doubt whoever received one of his cards would know Joe had gone to great lengths for them. I told him about Monica and how she wrote postcards and loved writing by hand.
  ‘Some of my friends see me writing my postcards,’ he said, ‘and they say, “Pen and paper? Really? Does anyone even do that anymore?’

The plane departed over an hour late but neither of us was in any hurry. The flight ascended through Kathmandu’s choking brown smog into a clear sky; on the starboard side, the Himalaya shone huge and jagged. I recognised some mountains – Machapuchare, the Annapurna massif, Dhaulagiri – and watched as they slid past the window until eventually they ended abruptly and the horizon faded into low, blue hills. I knew the Himalaya continued far beyond, and on the edge of vision a few more big mountains rose like hope, but the apparent sudden end to those legendary mountains felt like the ending of a glorious age.

I couldn’t look at the Himalaya, particularly the mountains around Dhaulagiri, without thinking of Matthiessen and The Snow Leopard, and the memory afflicted me like grief. Matthiessen had gone now; he had become part of the history he created, and I wondered who could ever again travel the way he and Schaller had. The world is hyper-connected, sponsored, and commercialised, and everything is visible from space. Vanishing from the world the way Schaller and Matthiessen did might still be possible, but it would require such a deliberate effort that the essence would be lost. The time of the true explorers has gone, and perhaps that, too, is the end of a glorious age.

At the bus station in Nepalgunj, I walked fifty metres down the road to sit in a tiny dhaba and drink chai and watch ‘Animal fights’ on a small, grubby CRT TV. A young guy fiddled with the back of the set to try to improve the reception and yelped as he got a mild shock from some live wiring. The two girls at the back of the dhaba, laughed; so did I, and he joined in. He had enough English with which to hold a short conversation but very quickly exhausted his vocabulary, and in any case the bus conductor had come to fetch me.

The long bus ride provided plenty of opportunities for photographs, and I enjoyed gesturing to ask if I might photograph. The response was always positive. I showed one of the first photographs to a woman vendor crouched on a blanket where we stopped for a long time on the outskirts of town. She’d smiled at me and pulled two of her children close to be photographed, and when they saw the photograph on the camera’s LCD, the other children swarmed around, wanting to be part of the action. I obliged, and one little girl stood up, put her hands together high in front of her face and said, very clearly and deliberately, ‘Namaste.’
I returned the compliment. Her mother smiled, a tired, beautiful smile, the whole time.

I photographed others, too, and during the remainder of the journey I began thinking about returning to Nepalgunj and spending a few days there, getting some prints done and trying to find the people I’d photographed so I could give them the prints.

I ended up jammed in a backwards-facing seat, my bag on my lap and a young woman in pain leaning forwards resting her head on the bag. I think she had a bad toothache, so, assuming the woman sitting next to her was her mother, gave the older woman the remains of a packet of ibuprofen. It was all I could do and was little more than a gesture, but I wanted to do something.

I’d been receiving a lot of smiles, including many from women, which I’d found unusual in India. Later, back in India, I was to discover that this avoidance of eye contact wasn’t as obvious as I’d remembered, and I began to think perhaps I looked old and worn out enough to be harmless. One woman who smiled at me on the bus held a beautiful little baby with kohl-blackened eyes; the infant wore a faded red hoodie not unlike mine.

Subash and the jeep driver, whose name I never learned but whom I liked a lot for his good humour and obvious knowledge about the animals and birds, were waiting for us at Ambassa. We dropped Joe off at an intersection in Thakurdwara with instructions about how to get to his lodge, and I gave him one of my contact cards. We shook hands and I was once again a lone foreigner.

1. This all seems a long time ago now, even though it's only about a month. I'm now back in Delhi, moving on to Bharatpur tomorrow. I'll try to catch up a little with the posts, but delays will be inevitable.

1. Preparing street food in Thamel, Kathmandu. I'm annoyed with myself for not including the food in the photograph!
2. One of the wider, better-maintained streets.
3. The Himalaya from the Yeti Airlines flight from Kathmandu to Nepalgunj.
4. Our rickshaw passed another on the way from the airport to Nepalgunj. I waved the camera, got some laughs and nods, and managed a few photographs.
5. Typical street scene in Nepalgunj. Maybe a little quieter than typical, though.
6. Family at the bus stop on the outskirts of Nepalgunj.

Photos and original text © 2016 Pete McGregor