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.
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.
‘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.
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.
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, bout 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.
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?’
‘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.
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.
‘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.