I was leaving the valley in November, when the season couldn’t decide whether it was spring or autumn. Everything seemed to be waiting for a decision except for the birds, which had clearly decided this was the time to reproduce. The starlings had made that decision early – not surprising, for such an intelligent and unfairly maligned bird – and already, unseen broods squealed from the nest box on top of the deer fence and from the inside of the rolled-up, disused roller door hanging from the roof of the implement shed next to my car. Those chicks must have had hearing as well developed as their inability to distinguish the bearer of food from the bringer of horrible death. Maybe when I walked past to my car, I sounded more like a parent starling than a rat, stoat, or cat, or maybe they knew they were safe from all those predators. More likely, the only part of their tiny baby brains that had developed was the part that recognised insatiable hunger.
The sparrows had taken longer to decide to nest, or perhaps their nests had required more effort, because they’d only now finished their incessant flights with beaks full of dry grass, baler twine, chook feathers, and anything else capable of being woven into a nest. Now, they did little other than mate, and they did so with a diligence that suggested practice did NOT make perfect. Every time I glanced out the kitchen window, it seemed, they were at it.
At some stage the sparrows would presumably stop shagging, the female would lay the last of her eggs, and incubation would begin. I wouldn’t get to enjoy the sound of tiny blind sparrow chicks squeaking in the kitchen ceiling, though. I’d be long gone by then. The likelihood was high that I’d be listening instead to the caw of crows, the chattering babble of rose-tinted parakeets, the murmur of various kinds of doves, the clockwork chikking of palm squirrels, and the sound of lots of other animals and birds, too, almost none to be found in New Zealand.
And not just the sounds of wildlife, either. Mostly, I’d be hearing the cacophony of human activity – a sometimes ear-splitting shrieking and bellowing and roaring – from an almost inconceivable number of people: one point two something billion, in fact, and more by the day. Maybe by the minute. Sometimes, sitting in an auto-rickshaw in a sea of blaring traffic, each vehicle little more than a layer of paint from its neighbours, I’d wonder whether the entire 1.2 billion had converged on where I happened to be trapped. It should have been a nightmare but it wasn’t. I was looking forward to it, and I didn’t know why.
The contrast between where I was, in a quiet, beautiful, out-of-the-way valley in an out-of-the-way, by world standards almost unpopulated, corner of the world, could hardly have been greater. I love the valley, and I knew I’d miss my friends – not just the human friends, but the chooks and pigeons, and the wild birds making themselves at home in and around my home; the deer, especially the wild deer who so often visited the hill only a few hundred metres from my back door; the rabbits, who I hoped would survive until I returned at the end of February; the scraggly sheep always on the lookout to be hand-fed old bread or vegetable scraps (the sheep who used my house as a scratching post and who inadvertently bashed their heads on the underside of my floor when they sheltered there in bad weather or on cold nights); and even the little spiders who hung about in the corners and the mason wasps who built their clay nests in all sorts of inconvenient places inside the house. So many other kinds of animals, too – I knew I’d miss them all, yet I was still looking forward to my time in India, now only a few days away.
I thought of all those friends I’d be leaving, and a gentle melancholy settled on me.
‘See you in three-and-a-half months,’ I said.
1. I'm in New Delhi now. The long journey here proved surprisingly comfortable (a relative term, of course). All I need to do now is find an ATM that isn't attached to a queue of several hundred people: my arrival coincided with Prime Minister Modi's surprise announcement that banknotes of 500 and 1000 rupees were being immediately withdrawn. I can use my cards for some things, but not the small, essential, everyday things like, ... well, ... eating. Looks as if I'll have to eat at expensive restaurants that accept cards :-(
1. This is my current problem: every functional ATM looks like this or worse.
2. But I'm still enjoying India. This is Mr Bal Singh, proprieter of the Uttam tea centre ('Tea, Spices, Saffron'). I met him on my first trip to India, and each time I've returned, he's greeted me with a smile of recognition and a hand outstretched to shake. He bought me chai, and we sat in his little shop and tried our best to converse.
Photos and original text © 2016 Pete McGregor