31 July 2014

Life in Manali

Here at the Bee's Knees cafe -- quiet, no one else here yet except the staff; lush, green; at a low, comfortable table in an apple orchard; tranquil, relaxed. Manali might be strongly focused on the tourist trade but it does it well; I like it, probably too much and might spend too long here. It's more expensive than McLeod Ganj but the additional expense is relative; in absolute terms it's insignificant.

The muesli takes a while to arrive; the black tea I also ordered turns out to be a tea bag and a glass of hot water. Surprisingly, though, the tea has a passable flavour and -- a nice touch -- comes with a small, plain biscuit. Brooke Bond seems to be the ubiquitous tea bag; I've encountered nothing else anywhere so far. The day, which had begun to build towards an uncomfortable heat, has cooled; the sky's clouded over, and I hope I'll get back to the Tiger Eye before the rain. I have no plans other than relaxing, catching up on sleep, maybe preparing another blog post, and a little, gentle exploring of Old Manali. I might even look at buying a shirt or light jacket -- something that makes me stand out a little less -- and perhaps a shoulder bag for more convenient access to the camera and other walking-about items. Travelling often seems like this: a process of finding out what works and what doesn't, of adapting and modifying.

A small bird that looks like one of the British tits fossicks in the garden nearby. Black markings, grey body, some pale underneath, longish tail. I'll see if I can identify it when I get back to the Tiger Eye, but I might have to pay the exorbitant price for the Grimmett and Inskipp app -- the only alternative is the free 'Indian Birds' app which is riddled with errors, some serious, and, as I discover, isn't even close to comprehensive.

The first customers arrive: young; trendily dressed; Irish, judging from their accents; at least two of the three with colds. The muesli arrives at last, and it's worth the wait -- a small bowl of real muesli (no cornflakes here) with a large bowl of curd (yoghurt) and an enormous bowl of fruit: banana, mango, papaya, watermelon, plum. Everything except the pieces of plum has been scrupulously peeled and the cubes of watermelon have even been deseeded. I trust it's all safe; as Bradley pointed out last night while trying to alleviate my suspicion of salads, it's not in the interests of the restaurants here to poison people. I trust these words won't prove perversely prophetic.

Just going on 9 o'clock and the place is still quiet. The sun's just come out, and the big Irish guy with the tattooed shoulder and arm (he wears a loose tank top and even looser, floppy pants -- very trendy; almost de rigueur here) returns from another trip to the toilet and says, 'It's beautifully warm in that sun,' as he returns to his companions. A kid with a heavy crate of empty bottles races down the path at a half run, jandals flopping. He looks as if he should be at school. All these people working while we, the privileged and indolent, relax and eat our expensive breakfasts and enjoy the beautifully warm sun. How is it that we're so much luckier? What did we do to deserve our lives, other than being born in the right place at the right time? Maybe this is the rationalisation for theories of reincarnation and karma -- that in the previous life we lived well enough to deserve this one. Maybe also it's a reminder to live this life as generously, compassionately, and appreciatively as we can, so we might earn another as lucky as this.

A small spider climbs the arm of the cane chair opposite me, its world on a completely different scale to mine, utterly unaware I'm watching. What might be watching us? One apparently bizarre theory suggests we're something like simulations in some enormously complex computer model. Surprisingly, this has some supporting evidence in the form of the observed small changes in cosmological constants, as if some modeller were tweaking the parameters of the model. Far-fetched, perhaps, but what else explains those changes in constants, which are, after all, supposed to be constant, fixed, unchanging? The problem with that hypothesis, though, is that it's hard to see how it might be tested. If it can't, it joins the endless list of other intriguing ideas that have no scientific worth, and we're not short of those.

I stop on the way back to my room to refill my bottle with filtered water and buy a small tube of sunscreen. On the balcony I sit with the binoculars ready, but so far the only bird to appear has been a subadult common myna. In this heat the other birds have disappeared, but I suppose they'll become more evident towards evening. Sensible -- doing what needs to be done, or just enjoying being out and about, is definitely more pleasant early in the morning and in the cool of the evening. Now, even the mountains have retreated behind puffy, white-and-grey cloud.

Nevertheless, this sun and heat have advantages. A beautiful chestnut and buff dove with a blue-grey chequered pattern around the sides of the neck, a white band at the end of the tail, and an alert red eye spreads itself out on the dark, damp ground of a fallow garden below. As I watch, it repositions itself, giving me a better view of the beautiful colours of its plumage, but it appears to be limping -- yes, one leg appears to be cramped up and useless, making the bird hop on the other. Another point of difference between ourselves and other animals: no other animals I can think of will support another of their species with a disability, discounting the natural maternal instinct of many mammals and birds.

I'm not sure why I keep comparing humans to other animals. Maybe by paying attention to our similarities and differences we can understand more about ourselves -- and them, too. Maybe, too, some of these observations are a good counter to sentiment.

A row of prayer flags, so faded nothing remains of their colour, flutters in the breeze on a nearby rooftop, and two small, unidentifiable birds fly past. A jungle crow strokes its way through the air, high up, going towards the mountain, the conifer forest. A Himalayan bulbul flies up and alights, half obscured, at the top of a leafy fruit tree. I'm lost in thoughts, looking out over the valley, when I hear knocking and, looking around, see two mynas on the balcony with me, the nearest less than a couple of metres away on the railing. We study each other for a few moments, bird to man, then it apparently decides I have nothing to offer, so it drops off the railing and, joined by its companion, flies off. I must remember not to leave small, thievable items lying around -- my Lamy Safari, for example, is exactly the same bright yellow as these birds' bills and the bare skin around their eyes.

In town in the afternoon I meet Rebecca and Rose, the two young British women on the bus from Dharamsala to Manali. They seem cheerful, enjoying being here. Already they've visited nearby Vashist, which they recommend as lovely; tomorrow they're on the bus to Leh, staying overnight at Keylong camp. We talk a bit about altitude sickness. This morning I checked the map and discovered Keylong, the lower of the two camps, is almost as high as Leh and close to 1500 m higher than Manali. Still, as Rose pointed out, hundreds (possibly thousands) do the journey every year, so the problems can't be too serious. They seemed keen to chat. I liked their energy, their enthusiasm, their enjoyment of where they were and what they were doing. 'Maybe we'll see you in Leh,' Rose said as we went in different directions.

I'd like that.

A crow flies past the balcony where I write then arcs around to fly directly away. I love the shape of their wings when they fly -- the way the wings flex and curve, the deliberate grace of their flight. A few minutes later, two quick pigeons speed past, tilting so the sun shines through their wings. Rico and Bradley and two other friends sit in the far corner of the balcony, talking quietly while Bradley strums his ukelele. I'm sure I'd be welcome to join them, but I'm enjoying just being here, watching the birds, the butterflies, the sway and flutter of the faded prayer flags, the gradual darkening and thickening of the clouds over the mountains, the colours and textures of the rusting corrugated iron roof below us, so much else. Everything seems so laid back it feels like the land of lotus-eaters, although I suspect here the lotus has been replaced by another distinctive plants that grows wild and in abundance along the roadsides and pathways.

One afternoon I walk down the hill to New Manali to see what it's like and locate an ATM I can visit early in the morning before the crowds. On the way back I stop at a rough little shop that advertises aloo paratha in faded, just-distinguishable lettering. 'Yes,' the man says, 'aloo paratha. Chai?'
Yes, I say, chai also. I step inside and sit with the only other customer, an Indian man absorbed in his phone. The vendor returns.
'No aloo paratha,' he says. 'Only chai.'
Fine with me. I'm happy to drink only chai. The stall's little more than a shack with a corrugated iron roof and walls of tin and thin, buckled plywood held together by grime. On top of the partition between the kitchen and dining area (a table and two hard benches), someone has draped several pairs of what appear to be old underpants. The chai's wonderful: real chai; sweet, flavoursome, the taste of real India. I love it.

Ten rupees the man says. His tone's gentle, undemanding. He sits with a cigarette in his fingers, a friend in the seat next to him. He asks where I'm from.
'Ah, Nooh Seelund. Beautiful country. Beautiful people,' he says.
His friend nods and I hope I'm not letting the side down; I also wonder what he really knows about New Zealand but I appreciate the gesture. I ask if I might photograph them, and afterwards I show them the result. They seem pleased, and as I leave I tell them I'll see them tomorrow.

It's a promise I keep. The next day, after booking my minibus to Leh, I celebrate with chai. The elderly vendor isn't there (he arrives shortly after) and the underpants have gone from the partition. Once again, though, I can order only chai. The young guy who takes my order checks whether I want sugar.
 'Sugar?' he says.
 'Yes, please.'
I assume he means lots of sugar, like real chai. 'Yes.'
Laughter all round. I'm not entirely sure what the joke is, but it's all good-natured and I'm happy to join in. The chai's just as good as yesterday's -- sweet and full of flavour. I sit in the cool of the dark shop, watching people and vehicles passing by, and I'm slightly puzzled by why I feel so happy after such a couple of insignificant events: buying a bus ticket and drinking chai in a little shack with people who seem to like having me here. If it's easy as this, how is it that so many people, including so many of the visitors here, seem so unhappy, so stressed, so dissatisfied? Maybe their lives are so much more complicated than mine; maybe, when I travel, life becomes so much simpler and decisions reduce to straightforward things like where to eat, where to sleep, when to move on, and how to buy a bus ticket.

Up early on the second morning in Manali, I wander slowly up the road, past old wooden houses where colourful laundry hangs draped from dark windows and yellow straw fills lower-storey balconies or dangles in swatches from the railings. Mynas and house sparrows forage; great tits flit and snap at each other in fruit trees; two russet sparrows with their chestnut crowns tantalise me by not staying still long enough for a decent photograph (one later relents). I walk until the path narrows and squeezes past a construction site where several men are already assembling breeze blocks to form a wall, using the typical mortar that seems to consist mostly of hope. On the way down a family of jungle crows alights on the path to collect something indistinguishable from the ground. I photograph, crouch, photograph more, from a better angle, but they won't stay still. When I finally stand and move slowly and quietly past, they hardly bother to get out of the way. This acceptance -- it might be contempt but I prefer the other interpretation -- delights me.

I stroll down the lane to the Bee's Knees. The entrance is already open so I walk in and the young guy polishing glasses with a rag of indeterminate cleanliness beams at me. I ask if they're open and he nods.
 'Open!' he says, with a great smile that I later find seems permanent; I never recall seeing him without it.
Yesterday's waiter sits at a nearby table. He looks up. 'Yes sir,' he says. 'Open! Open for breakfast!'
He looks overjoyed to see me and no doubt recognises me from yesterday. Telling someone their food's good is one thing -- it's a nice gesture and always appreciated -- but returning to the cafe or restaurant proves. The cliche's true: actions do speak louder than words.

I take a seat at the same table in the apple orchard. A little way off, a crow forages in long grass beneath pinkish-mauve chrysanthemums, and a myna flies down and fossicks along the path. Under this overcast sky I'm almost cold in my freshly-laundered merino t-shirt and light cotton shirt. I should savour the feeling and store it for the heat that lies ahead -- months of it still to come -- but it's hard, perhaps impossible, to truly remember being cold when you're sweltering. A very loud, melodious bird flies past above the orchard; all I see is the movement, a glimpse. I have no idea what it is. 

After breakfast I walk down the road, past cars attempting 12-point-or-more turns, minibuses belching black fumes, shops setting up their multi-coloured wares. A man arranges seats in the upstairs Fusion cafe; he blows his nose vigorously into the street below and calls out a cheery 'Good morning!' as I pass. I carry on down to the bridge where I see several small birds on the big boulders of the raging river, so I go down to the ghats, frustrated by my inability to remember the name of these attractive little birds that I came to know so well in Uttarakhand almost eight years ago (how can it be so long, and will I manage to return this time?). I want a closer look and some photographs if possible.

Several males, with their blue-black bodies and rufous tails, chase each other and a few females dart about catching insects. While I crouch with the camera ready, just about to photograph, something taps the back of my left shoulder. Startled, I stand and look around. A tawny dog looks at me quizzically, as if expecting a response -- food, probably. Seeing none's forthcoming, it trots past, scaring the birds. One of the females lands on a nearby boulder in the shallows, but before I can frame a photograph the dog decides this would be a good place to splash about. The female flies off. This dog's lucky I like it.

Later I grudgingly pay for the Grimmett and Inskipp app and at last find the name of these lovely little birds: the plumbeous water redstart. The free Indian Birds app doesn't even list this species.

I spend most of one afternoon engaged in conversation with Rico, the Italian in another room on my top storey of the Tiger Eye. Mostly I listen; sometimes I manage to slip in a comment; sometimes those comments delight him, as when I mention the Elizabethan polymath Dr Dee.
 'Ah, John Dee!' Rico exclaims, leaning back and smiling and sweeping his hair back with both hands. He starts on a long discussion of Dee's interests in alchemy and occultism and leading eventually -- or was it back -- to the Benign White Cabal. On another occasion I mention Tarkovsky's film, Stalker. Rico beams and expresses great approval.
 'But don't watch anything else,' he says, warning me how most films are part of the way we're programmed.

Most of what he talks about leaves me lost, but I still enjoy the conversation, which ranges from topics like classical music, the origins of the term 'rock and roll', and the Beatles' White Album -- Adorno, he tells me, created the Beatles -- to the Tavistok Institute, Marlowe, 12 atonal music, and Orson Welles. Much more, besides.
 'There are no coincidences,' he says, shaking his head and looking serious. 'It's against the laws of physics.'
I can't work out whether he's a nutter -- at one stage he even says I probably think he's one -- or whether he's attained a kind of secular enlightenment that allows him to see society more incisively. Two things can't be disputed, though: his astonishing knowledge and his matching likeability.

Nor can I fault his taste in music. The next day the friendly middle-aged Dutch couple and I are on the balcony as the evening light begins to fade. Mist hangs around the mountainside, high up, picking out the slender, spiky, almost needle-like conifers in a beautiful, atmospheric, and slightly eerie perspective, like something from a Grimm's fairy tale. Music floats from Rico's room: Nick Drake, Nina Simone, a woman with a beautiful voice I vaguely recognise, Bob Dylan -- all slightly haunting, all perfectly suiting the mood. Rico comes out to check he's not 'inflicting it' on us, but we enthuse about it and encourage him to keep playing it. Later I ask him about the woman whose voice I almost recognised: Alela Diane, he says. Of course! Perhaps this is an indication that I've left my life in the Pohangina Valley behind me to a greater extent than I'd realised. I do feel more 'present' here and all through this journey; noticeably more so than on any other major journey. I take this as a good sign.

Nevertheless, I wonder whether, listening to this music, sleeping in a comfortable, clean room with a shower that delivers dependable hot water, simply relaxing on the balcony, sometimes enjoying a Kingfisher with a simple dish of veg momos on the balcony in the evening, occasionally making short visits to Old Manali with its almost single-minded focus on catering to the desires of the trendy travellers -- these things make me wonder whether I'm really in India. Did I return for this kind of lotus-eating life? This certainly isn't typical India, but I'll have plenty of opportunity to immerse myself in that (as was unquestionably the case in Amritsar) -- probably more opportunity than I'd like.

Sometimes I question what I'm doing on this journey, not in the sense of questioning my purpose, but of wondering what that purpose might be. Maybe it has many purposes. I wanted to see India again, to be part of the chaos and richness and strangeness and difference. I also wanted the feeling of being on the move again, doing something about the restlessness which is more curiosity than dissatisfaction. 

Perhaps also -- perhaps even mainly -- I wanted the stimulation and freedom that would let me write as much as I want: not a retreat, but an immersion. I wanted to write in places and among events that might break me out of writing about the same things, over and over. Time will tell whether this journey has succeeded in that, but the question remains: what will happen when I return to my usual way of life? Will the store of memories sustain me and my writing for long enough? Long enough for what? As I said, time will tell. I do know that many people have expectations that visitors to India will do certain things, that they go to India to be in India, that any time in India spent doing what might also be done back 'home' amounts to time wasted. I reject these expectations. Wherever you are, you live your life.

On a flat, concrete rooftop below the Tiger Eye, apricot kernels lie spread out to dry. The flesh lies on a sheet on the flagstones in front of the house, presumably so the owner can quickly scare off any marauding birds. Rico must have intuited my concern about being insulated from 'real' India, or perhaps we talked about it and I've forgotten; in any case, he plays a raga from Bihar: sitar, tablas, vocals. Beautiful music that goes on and on -- I can imagine listening to this all day and all night and never tiring. It finally finishes at exactly 1.30 p.m., to the second.

There are no coincidences.

1. Again, this is an edited selection of impressions. It's long, but I spent a while in Manali and wanted to do it justice -- at least from my perspective. I'm now in Leh, after a two-day minbus journey. More about that later.
2. Assembled in haste at an Internet Cafe. Apologies for errors.

1. The main road of Old Manali.
2, 3, 4. Along the path from the road to the Tiger Eye Guest House.
5. Male plumbeous water redstart.
6. Manali forest, evening; from my balcony.

Photos and original text © 2014 Pete McGregor


Relatively Retiring said...

I don't need to go travelling any more. You are doing it on behalf of many of us. I can feel this place, the atmosphere, the wildlife, the people. Thank you.
From my time in the Middle East I feel so familiar with the 'typical mortar that seems to consist mostly of hope.'
But please tell me you're not eating Kingfishers?

Ruahine said...

Kia ora Pete...
How enjoyable to catch up with your travels, as I enjoy a cold Monteith's. Your mention of the King fisher made me a bit thirsty.
"where ever you are,you live your life"...I love that line, and how, like the boy carrying the bottles, or the savant in your lodgings, we all live them quite differently almost in the same space.
Tara joins me in greetings and a hug. Stay well e hoa.

Zhoen said...

India as a spiritual journey, like the quest for the holy grail, a visit to Avalon, out of time. But there you are in reality, as it is now. With a Fortean guy named Rico. As long as it was not foreseen, not what you expected, sounds like a journey.

pohanginapete said...

RR, thank you for the vindication that I'm achieving at least something of what I'm attempting with these posts. Really appreciated. Rest assured, too, that the only Kingfisher I ingested in Manali was the cold, liquid, refreshing kind similar to Robb's Monteiths.

Kia ora Robb & Tara, and I'm looking forward to enjoying a Monteiths and a good catch-up in November. So much to talk about, and even better with people who truly understand.

Zhoen, that's a good and important point -- the best journeys (perhaps all true journeys) have strong elements of the unforeseen and unexpected.