18 August 2014

Coming down -- return to Delhi

While waiting for the last lunch in Manali -- possibly forever -- I scribble a few notes and think about the journey. Right now I feel as if I'm just killing time, waiting for it to pass until I board the bus to Delhi; as if my time in Manali has already ended and I just want to get on the bus and start travelling again. This journey has a strange feel to it -- less coherent, less unified, perhaps, than the other big journeys. Already I have the impression I'll remember it much more as a series of episodes: Delhi and Amritsar (Amritsar seems so long ago now); Dharamsala and Manali; Leh/Ladakh; and then of course the times to come, most of which seem impossibly far in the future but in an instant will be here then receding into the past. This is the incomprehensibility of time; I simply can't get my head around the way the future becomes the past. It's both a comfort -- no matter how how difficult the present, it will eventually become the past (time heals all wounds) -- and, sometimes, a source of grief (time wounds all heels).

I'm not even sure this reflects the different nature of this journey, though. When I think of the other big journeys I think of them as episodes, too; for example, my time in Mongolia and my time in Italy, as well as other places, took place on the same trip but they were so different the link seems tenuous. Perhaps what's different about this journey, what's so strange, is the way I seem so much more immersed in it; how, when I do think about being back in the Pohangina Valley, I have no trace of the slight wistfulness that usually accompanied those memories on all the previous journeys (which is not to say I won't greatly enjoy being back there). More than on any other trip, I seem to be comfortable wherever I am, which is remarkable given the physical conditions -- this almost unrelenting heat and humidity -- which are more difficult than anywhere I remember except perhaps Ghana, which they resemble. Perhaps this is a good sign. Perhaps, after all this travelling over all these years I'm only now beginning to learn how to travel truly.

The aimlessness of this scribbling probably speaks for itself, and probably arises from too much sitting. Was it Nietzsche who claimed that the only worthwhile thoughts come from walking? If so, it's typical Nietzschean hyperbole but also typical of his insights, containing a germ of truth: being in motion really does seem to stimulate thought processes. Walking does this best, but other forms of movement can achieve similar results. This is one of the main reasons I love most journeys by bus.

 I remember too, how one of Chris Bonnington's books about his attempts on the south-west face of Everest included an extract from an expedition member's diary; in that, the diarist admonished himself for wasting time in unstructured thought. When I read that, decades ago, I felt guilty because I recognised how much time I spent in 'unstructured' thought. Now, much older and more critical, I think the claim that unstructured thought is a waste of time is utter bullshit. Certainly, structured thought has a place -- for example, when you're trying to resolve a logical problem -- but most insights, I suspect, come from thoughts allowed to wander, to make connections where they will, to go off on tangents or explore their own paths.

The bus leaves two hours late. Waiting for passengers from Leh, the driver said. Plausible, and frustrating, but delays, often protracted, are part of life in India and the trick to dealing with them is, I think, to know when something might be done to hasten the process and when the only option is acceptance, resignation, and a philosophical attitude. The problem, however, is that knowing whether something might be done requires a good understanding of how things get done here, and for visitors like me that's seldom possible. Consequently, I might sometimes be too philosophical, too resigned. That's hardly a great cost, though.

Already late, the bus then stops several times to load vegetables. This involves groups of men standing around apparently doing nothing except talking and occasionally putting another large, shattered-cardboard box held together by flimsy twine into the cargo hold. Five minutes' work turns to half an hour; what should have been several hours of gazing out the window watching the evening landscape pass by turns into several hours of watching the landscape NOT pass by, until finally night shuts down even that option. Once the possibility of enjoying the scenery has passed, the long stops cease.

Surprisingly, I manage a fair amount of sleep -- fitful, but it helps the night pass. We stop at a truckers' dhaba where the extremely efficient staff deliver my paratha promptly and I finish it with time to spare. Back on the bus we continue to drive through the night and I continue to sleep, off and on, seeing almost nothing of the places we pass through save for house lights high on mountainsides; small, illuminated villages; a large market selling mostly fruit and vegetables; and occasional bridges, including one over an expanse of water that in the moonlight looked impossibly large to be situated in the mountains.

Dawn comes; the sky lightens; the sun glows just above the horizon, red and perfectly round through thick haze. As it rises, it turns from red to orange to an intense yellow disc bearing the threat of tremendous heat. We stop again soon after, around 7 a.m., at another travellers' complex where the conductor tells me we have 15 minutes. I order an excellent aloo paratha and chai, bolt the breakfast down within the 15 minutes and wait around for the remaining 15 minutes until we begin the final leg to Delhi.

The delays, however, mean instead of arriving between 5 and 7 in the morning, we reach our destination closer to 9.30 a.m. Roger, the Australian from near Alice Springs, and I share a ride to Paharganj after some hard bargaining that lets us halve the initial Rs400 fare. This all takes time, though, and when we eventually arrive, all chance of visiting the Kazakhstan embassy today has vanished.

Every restaurant I visit in Paharganj feels like a sauna, even the rooftop restaurants that in theory should catch the breeze. This wouldn't be so bad if clothes were optional, but unfortunately they're not (although some foreign visitors with less concern for local sensitivities seem to be testing that requirement to its limit). Besides, if I stripped down I'd be taken for a reincarnation of Gandhi and I could do without that attention.

The bottle of ice cold water I bought half an hour ago has already reached blood temperature, and I can't help thinking of those evenings on the top floor of the Tiger Eye in Manali with a cold Kingfisher, a plate of steamed veg momos, and a view of misty, forested mountainsides. On my last day there I'd had breakfast as usual at the Bee's Knees and had been greeted like a long-absent friend, which in a sense I suppose I was. I lingered there, wondering why so few people seemed to visit and deciding that perhaps it was because here you couldn't be seen from the street; here you couldn't display your coolness as effectively; here, too, you couldn't evaluate the passersby and keep an eye out for friends who might be walking along the road looking for similarly trendy and conspicuous places to eat.

Eventually I abandoned my cynicism and simply enjoyed being where I was. Jungle crows held an animated conversation in the trees and some other bird, probably a Himalayan bulbul, warbled melodiously nearby. A dog barked; a vehicle screeched its horn as it made its way down the narrow road; the thump of the kind of music Rico detested sounded like a heartbeat lower down in the town, and perhaps that's what it was -- the sound of the kind of life that attracts a certain kind of traveller to Old Manali. Marco, the Italian photographer in the minibus that had survived only half the journey from Leh to Manali (another story), didn't fit that stereotype -- not in the least -- and he chose to stay in New Manali. Coincidence or not? I know what Rico would have said.

As for me -- just as far as Marco from this stereotype of the typical Old Manali traveller -- I prefer the sound of the birds.

1. I've skipped much of what I sketched out in my handwritten notes in Leh, not because it's unimportant but for precisely the opposite reason. Leh affected me deeply, and when something's that important you want to do it justice. I don't know whether I can; I don't know how I might. I think it needs time, but the previous post is as good an attempt as I can manage for the time being, even if focused more on events outside Leh itself. (Conversely, the photographs are all from in and around Leh, but that's mostly because the bug-riddled app, Photomate R2, won't let me access anything from Manali or earlier.)

1. The Taglang La, 5328 m, on the road from Manali to Leh. When I returned, this was lit by the light of the almost-supermoon.
2. Mani wall at Rumbak
3. Dog on the  steps leading to the palace, Leh.
4. The poorer part of Leh at sunset, from the Monastery knoll.

Photos and original text © 2014 Pete McGregor


Relatively Retiring said...

You have made a potentially frustrating and uncomfortable time into something very special.

Peregrina said...

Yes, that was Nietzsche: "All truly great thoughts are conceived by walking."

When you get home, try to get hold of "The Wandering Mind: What the Brain Does when You're Not Looking" by Michael Corballis. He stresses the importance of unstructured thought.

Here's a link to a conversation he had on radio with Kathryn Ryan earlier this year: http://www.radionz.co.nz/audio/player/2596720

I'm really enjoying travelling with you to places I will never visit. What extraordinary landscapes and how well you describe what you see, the people you meet and the thoughts you have. Thank you for taking me along. Best wishes for the next leg of your journey.

pohanginapete said...

RR and Peregrina, thank you. Peregrina, I'll check the interview when I have plenty of time and good internet access, but thanks for the link. I'll check out the book, too.

Zhoen said...

I've never been a good traveler, motion sickness as a kid, bad back as an adult. Nothing I love more than being on a train, especially at night with the darkness sliding past.

Can we see the dog on Ruins? Full size?

pohanginapete said...

Zhoen, I love trains too, although I prefer travelling during the day.

Big dog photograph posted. :^)

Ruahines said...

Kia Ora Pete,
Those nights drifting in and out of sleep on a bus or train going somewhere can seem endless. Maybe the possibilities in the motion keep our senses keen. In spite of the darkness. Onto the next phase of the journey e hoa. From the comfort of my chair in front of the fire I too am looking forward to it. Rave On Pete.

pohanginapete said...

Kia ora Robb,
I think you're right about the possibilities. As soon as you start going somewhere, more seems possible, and that always seems like a comfort to me. On the other hand, I know some people for whom too much possibility is frightening. I guess the balance of those apparently competing forces -- possibility and security -- differs for all of us.