09 April 2020

The Birds of Udaipur

Another post from my last journey in India and Nepal. A reminder, perhaps, that life wasn't always about social distancing and being locked down and fearing the sound of a cough. A reminder, too, that one day we may be able to enjoy times like these once more. Stay safe, my friends.

Udaipur, Friday 20 December 2019

No mosquito bites last night. No Bank mynas this morning, either. I’d crossed the Daiji footbridge to investigate The Little Prince restaurant for breakfast but the prices in the menu scared me off. The walk wasn’t wasted, though. Apart from confirming the absence of mynas, I received a lovely, appealing look from a dog with gentle eyes; it was curled up by the swing gate and looked at me with such hope that I almost bent to pat it. No doubt it would have preferred food.
   But food wasn't on the minds of the two wire-tailed swallows preening on the power lines next to the bridge. I photographed them and considered it partial compensation for the missing mynas. I tried to remember whether I’d seen Bank mynas in Bhuj or Jamnagar but couldn’t. Was my memory failing? On the train from Bundi I’d suddenly realised I’d been thinking I was a year older than I actually was. I’d wondered why the train ticket stated my age wrong and felt like an idiot when I realised it was right and I was the one who’d been wrong. How could that happen? Was it a good thing? Perhaps forgetting my age was an indication that it was becoming less important for me? I wanted to believe my reasoning but couldn’t; it was just another rationalisation.
   I walked back to Satori for breakfast, but the low seating wasn’t suitable for serious writing and I wasn’t prepared to perch at the counter along the front window. Last night’s premature conclusions about the price of food and suitability of cafés for writing were rapidly being shot down. After breakfast I explored the alleys on the far side of the footbridge but found no Bank mynas, just pigeons, a couple of stilts standing offshore on a submerged platform along with a solitary pond heron, and a crowd of Indian tourists being photographed and videoed by Indian men with large zoom lenses and assistants wielding reflectors. Not wishing to end up as an extra in someone’s honeymoon video, I avoided the activity and made my way back to the Edelweiss for a flat white and some writing. An Indian couple occupied the mirror-work alcove. The lean young man dominated the conversation; she said little and, when she did, spoke quietly. When she turned, I noticed she had a full, dark beard.
   After they left, a young man with a tangle of curly hair and cut-off shorts slouched in, looked around, and commandeered a table in the morning sun, slumping back in his chair and fiddling with his phone. He looked Middle Eastern,possibly Israeli, but, having been wrong too often, I was cautious about making that assumption. A hesitant foreign woman in her twenties came and sat on the bench seat at the back but immediately stood up and looked at the restaurant menu on the wall. I was about to suggest the café menu was on the counter next door when one of the staff appeared and took her through to inspect it. Meanwhile, the man in ragged shorts had lit up, and although he blew his smoke out into the street, it drifted back and filled the café. I closed the cahier, packed it away with my pens and left, feeling unreasonably grumpy. He’d at least tried to be considerate and keep his smoke out of the café, but the outcome had been the same as if he hadn’t bothered. My lungs were already taking a beating from Udaipur’s filthy air, which at times was worse than the smog I’d breathed in Delhi. The problem in Udaipur was two-fold: many of the rickshaws ran on diesel and poured dense clouds of black smoke from their exhausts (in Delhi, they’re mostly CNG, with a few electric); and the narrow, ravine-like streets prevented the fumes from dissipating rapidly. Those narrow streets also made the ear-splitting motorbike horns literally painful. Often, after a particularly painful encounter, I found my hearing muffled for several seconds.

I ate lunch on the Namaste’s third floor, a quiet, comfortable place with a glimpse of the lake. The fare looked limited but they had good multigrain rolls and cinnamon rolls. I didn’t want yet another coffee so had a lemon soda, which, when I tried it, was exactly what I wanted. I drank it slowly as I wrote, and although I'd exhausted my will to write,  I’d have been happy staying a little longer.
   But a woman had taken the table behind me and had lit a cigarette. She must have guessed.
   ‘I’m sorry,’ she said as I stood to go, ‘is the smoke bothering you?’
   She held her cigarette as far away as possible and low down. Suddenly I wanted to forgive her; I appreciated her awareness.
   ‘I should have asked,’ she said. ‘I can move …’ and she started to get up.
   I reassured her, said I’d finished and was leaving anyway and thanked her for checking. The bill was reasonable for Udaipur, and I thought this would be a good place to while away the hours the next day while I waited for the evening bus to Bhuj.
   Later in the morning I’d walked across the second bridge, the Chandpole Bridge, to continue exploring the far bank. As I approached the far end of the bridge, I began to remember the place. Several birds — not pigeons — fidgeted on ledges high above the road. The sight delighted me: Bank mynas! I’d been looking in the wrong place, on the wrong bridge. I didn’t have the big lens, just the 12-40mm, and they were too high up for good photographs, but now I knew where they were, and I’d return early the next morning. I love these birds.
I walked to the Lotus for dinner but found it still closed. A man saw me and came over to explain that ‘something had happened in the family’. The owner’s uncle, he said, and assured me the café would be open in the morning. I walked down the road to the Raj Palace, which I was sure I remembered, and had excellent malai kofta — the flavour of the potato skins nicely discernible amid the well-judged spices — with plain rice (hot, not tepid!) and a Kingfisher. An obese pug snuffled around my feet, found me of no interest despite my affectionate pat, and staggered off. Someone had fired up a brazier. A young woman with a backpack seated herself next to an older man who looked like Carl Jung and Gandhi, and they sat quietly watching the flames. Udaipur, I thought, might not have the charm of Bundi, but it still had a lot to offer.
I’d eaten enough. I’d bought the bus ticket. I’d walked a long way, and I’d found the Bank mynas. Now, worn out, I returned to my room, stopping only to buy ridiculously cheap ibuprofen. I slept. In the evening I sat on the rooftop and watched the light fade. The sky was full of pigeons and luminous mare’s tails, both going in all directions. On a nearby rooftop, a sleek cat crept over some black plastic water tanks, jumped down out of sight, and reappeared at the top of the steps leading down into the building. It paused, then in a few quick steps dropped down and was gone. On the peak of the highest tower nearby, a small falcon looked down at the cat’s rooftop. I had no binoculars and no camera. A lone egret and a black kite flew past. In a city seething with people, the abundance of other lives sometimes startled me. Earlier in the day, as I'd stepped off the Daiji footbridge, a small rat had scrabbled desperately up some vertical, crumbling brickwork, the mortar disintegrating beneath its tiny paws. I was sure the little animal would fall, but it made it to the safety of a hole and vanished, showering dust and mortar as it fled. I almost cheered.
   Later, the rooftop cat returned, reversing its route. I sat in the mild evening, thinking about the feel of a cat’s fur. The cat was only about twenty metres away, but between us lay a five-storey canyon and generations of caution. I wanted it to cross those barriers and curl up on my lap, purring while I stroked it, but some things are not possible.

Udaipur, Saturday 21 December 2019

I love mynas, and Bank mynas especially. Not finding them in Udaipur had depressed me a little, although I’d consoled myself with the thought that I was only halfway through my journey and the likelihood of encountering Bank mynas somewhere was still high. But, yesterday, when I'd finally found them, my heart lifted. Just seeing them was almost enough, but this morning I made an earlier than usual start and walked across the Chandpole Bridge. Pigeons, crows, and a handful of Bank mynas were feeding. I stayed at a distance and photographed — mostly the mynas, with a few House crow portraits. A man walked along the footpath, placing a handful of food on the parapet for the birds, throwing another handful into the water for the fishes. He didn’t stop to watch, just moved on without fuss, as if this was simply something he did every morning.
   ‘Good morning,’ he said to me and carried on.
I’d seen this in other places in India and liked it, the way I liked seeing people feeding ducks at local parks in New Zealand even though I knew it wasn’t good for the ducks. The action reminded me that most people still respond well to animals. Questions about whether feeding ‘wild’ animals is good, and whether habituated animals should even be considered ‘wild’ are other issues. Things can be good and bad at the same time, and to insist that something’s one or the other is to take a naïve and simplistic view. This, however, is not the same as taking an intermediate, neither-this-nor-that position on an issue. I love mynas and stoats but I also accept they have devastating effects on New Zealand’s native fauna (I’m talking about Common mynas, not Bank mynas, which were not introduced to New Zealand). My views on these species are strong, both positive and negative, and I can’t think of anything about either species on which my opinion is lukewarm.
   I packed and checked out of the Nandini, leaving the Shuttle bag there for the day. Next to the three large packs left by other guests, mine looked pleasingly small and manageable. The owner of the Nandini made me a cup of chai, I paid my very reasonable bill and walked to the Edelweiss for apple pie. I didn’t order coffee but a flat white arrived anyway, and I felt mildly flattered that I’d been not only recognised but remembered. A young couple, possibly Israeli, occupied the alcove; an older woman, European I think, sat on the bench seat at the back; and the man who’d been there every morning sat at a table near the road, checking his phone. He looked very much like the Swedish man I’d met on my trek in Ladakh in 2014: the man who'd arrived near our homestay and had camped by the river, spending hours frying potatoes over a fire to eat the next day and sleeping in preparation for his unguided trek over a pass.
   Eventually, I couldn’t contain my curiosity. I paid my bill and went over to him. He was still studying his phone, but as soon as he looked up I knew he wasn’t the crazy Swede.
   ‘Do you mind if I ask where you’re from?’ I said.
   ‘I’m from France.’
   I explained how he looked like someone I’d met in Ladakh in 2014, and we talked for a while. His name was George; he’d been travelling in India for two months, mostly in places further south where I hadn’t been.
   ‘How much longer do you have in India?’ I said.
   ‘I leave today. I fly to Mumbai, then home.’
   I thought how, if I hadn’t spoken to him then, I’d have forever wondered whether he was the Swedish nut-job from Ladakh. An auto-rickshaw roared past while I was in the middle of a sentence and George shook his head and pointed to his ear. I rolled my eyes in empathy and waited until the din subsided, but just as I started speaking again, another rickshaw howled past. We both laughed.
   ‘It’s part of travelling in India,’ I said.
   He nodded, adding, ‘My hearing, it’s not as good as two months ago, I think.’
   I could identify with that. On this trip so far, Udaipur had hurt my hearing more regularly than anywhere else, including Delhi, and although there was much I’d miss about what was reputed to be the most romantic city in India, I wouldn’t miss having my hearing tortured and my respiratory tract poisoned by exhaust fumes.
   George appeared to have warmed to the conversation and I wondered whether, like me, travelling alone for long periods had helped him appreciate easy conversations. When I said goodbye, he thanked me and said perhaps we might run into each other again. It seemed unlikely if he was flying to Mumbai shortly, but repeatedly meeting travellers was, in my experience, not uncommon.

   That was confirmed shortly afterwards. I’d crossed the Daiji footbridge, intending to walk along the water’s edge to the Chandpole Bridge where the Bank mynas hung out, and as I passed in front of The Little Prince restaurant — ‘Recommended by Lonely Planet since 2017’, said the enormous billboard — l saw the middle-aged Korean couple from the Smyle in Delhi. The man called out a greeting. I walked over and we managed to exchange just enough words and phrases to be understood. We worked out that we must have arrived in Udaipur on the same day, and they, too were leaving today on a sleeper bus. They, however, were going in the opposite direction, to Agra. Later, I wondered whether I should visit Agra so I could say I’d been there and not visited the Taj Mahal, but that would be too perverse even for me.
   I took a seat at a table nearby and ordered green tea — eighty rupees for a cup of hot water with a Lipton’s tea bag. The Korean couple had ordered a huge plate of chicken thighs coated in Hoisin sauce. It looked delicious, but when the man offered me some, I declined as graciously as I could, having seen not only how chickens were butchered in India but also how they were raised. The offer warmed my heart, though, and despite our lack of a common language, the rapport felt genuine.
   I wondered how I’d spend the rest of the day. I had almost nine hours to kill and no desire to see famous sights. Sitting somewhere, watching the birds and people, thinking, not thinking, watching sunlight reflected from the lake rippling on the underside of the footbridge’s arches, and occasionally eating and drinking was good enough for me. I could see the Chirag’s rooftop restaurant across the water. It was shaded and had lots of plants, and I was sure I remembered eating there on my last visit to Udaipur. If it didn’t look as good when I got there, or if the menu turned out to be poor or expensive, I could always walk away and go elsewhere.
   If these were the most pressing decisions I had to make, I was surely one of the luckiest people around — certainly luckier than the man stripping to his underpants to wash his clothes in the lake on the far bank.

The Chirag’s rooftop restaurant: a nice view; comfortable (but the chairs are too low for the tables, even after I’ve shifted to a slightly taller one); an OK menu (but no multigrain rolls like the Namaste’s); the young woman at the table next to mine very beautiful, but she lights a cigarette just after I set up my pens and notebooks. I order a lemon soda and a cheese omelette. The soda’s very lemony and refreshing, the omelette, when it eventually arrives after a wait that makes me wonder if they’re making the cheese, is filling. From this high viewpoint I can see the Korean couple still at The Little Prince; presumably, like me, they’re killing time until they catch their sleeper bus to Agra. Shortly before my omelette arrives, I look across the water and see they’ve gone at last from their table; looking around, I recognise them making their way slowly across the Daiji footbridge. I watch until the woman follows her husband out of sight, and, as she does, I’m sure I’ll never see them again. Their disappearance is like a marker in the passage of time, a moment in my insignificant history.
   Three young people with British accents arrive and take a table on the other side of me. They, too, light cigarettes. One of the staff turns the stereo on — electronica; pounding, thumping bass. Conversation would be difficult if I had anyone to converse with. Below the rooftop on a streetlight, a pair of pigeons shag then preen. Perhaps they know of Udaipur’s reputation, and, as if to confirm it, they shag again, brazenly. The British trio are playing cards. Maybe they, too, are killing time. I glance across at the beautiful young woman and see she’s looking at me; she smiles, and I smile back and quickly look away.

   The sun had begun to slide in under the awning and I had to shift my chair back to avoid being cooked. The young woman got up to use the bathroom, and on the way back she stopped at my table.
   ‘Do you mind if I look at your pen?’ she said.
   ‘Please, feel free.’
   She picked it up and turned it around in her fingers but didn’t uncap it.
   ‘It is a Lamy?’ she said.
   She remarked on how you don’t see many fountain pens nowadays and how it’s unusual to see someone writing by hand. I told her I thought the mind thinks differently when you write by hand compared to typing. She asked if she might look at my writing.
   ‘I don’t want to read it,’ she said, ‘just look at it.’
   I thumbed through a few pages of the cahier for her and she made complimentary remarks.
   ‘These pens are good for drawing, for watercolours,’ she said.
   I replied that I didn’t sketch and asked if she did.
   ‘Yes, I do,’ she said, smiling.
   As she walked away I asked where she was from. She half-turned and, looking over her shoulder, gave me the kind of smile that unsettles old men.
   ‘I am French,’ she said, but I'd already guessed.

1 & 3. Bank mynas at the feeding station on the Chandpole Bridge
2. Crow at the feeding station. I love crows too. You can't tell me an eye like that isn't a portal to an intelligent mind.
4. Udaipur has plenty of wonderful sights, but not everything resembles the soulless beauty of the travel brochures. At the first guesthouse I stayed (which shall remain nameless), the view from the rooftop revealed another side of the city — an aspect I found just as appealing because of the possibilities it contained, the questions it raised, the stories it suggested. And langurs hung out here, too, which made it even more appealing.

Photos and original text © 2020 Pete McGregor

18 February 2020

A Train of Thought

Bundi to Udaipur, Wednesday 18 December 2019

  • The platform signs at Bundi Railway Station are useless. They don’t say which train’s arriving; they just exhort passengers to travel with the correct ticket. When a train arrives at approximately the right time, I have to assume it’s mine. At least it has a coach labelled S1, and I find seat 44; I also find it’s occupied by a supine shrouded figure that could just as easily be a corpse as someone sleeping. The coach is mostly empty, though, so I take the seat opposite and eventually work out how to drop the second-tier seat so I can sit upright.
  • Twenty to thirty minutes after departure, I watch an Egyptian vulture circling low over the sere, thorny landscape of Rajasthan. A woman in saffron tends a small flock of goats.
  • The conductor’s a middle-aged woman. She consults her list and, as I open the ticket on my phone, she pre-empts me and says, ‘Peter?’ A yes from me is good enough for her. No need to produce my passport. It’s nice to be trusted.
  • Fields edged with hedgerows of Euphorbia. I notice a newly-planted row and think Euphorbia would make an excellent hedge. Anything willing to force through a Euphorbia hedge would deserve the rewards on the other side.
  • Mandalgarh arrives after an hour.
  • Looking out at this hard land, I realise I love waste lands and places where human life is marginal. I’m almost overwhelmed by a sense of the significance of these moments in making up my life; the feeling almost breaks my heart. Is this wabi sabi?
  • By the railway lines, three structures that look like graves, each with two headstones. To believe that this is what they are would be unbearable.
  • Many dead animals along the embankments. A dog pulls at the intestines of a bloated cow; the front of a calf has been reduced to a red-and-white skeleton and the dark skin has shrivelled over the back half of the animal.
  • At Bassi, a lunch stop. Someone in the coach is farting brazenly. Fortunately, I’m far enough away to be unaffected.
  • The train leaves Bassi at 4.10 pm, and already the strength has started to go from the sun. 
  • Shadows lengthen and the first cold creeps in through the window. Someone has lit a smoky fire on the edge of a field. I have always been travelling; I am travelling forever.
  • Coal yards near Chittorgarh — the huge piles absorb light like black holes, collapsed stars, the ruins of existence. Behind the yards rises a huge, filthy, smoking industrial plant: Blake’s vision of dark satanic mills reified.
  • At Chittorgarh, kids reel invisible string that binds them to sky-high skittering kites as choking smoke drifts along between the tracks and the road and men drag their wheelie bags along the platform as they talk to their phones. The hacked-off limbs of trees lie where they’ve fallen, waiting to be turned into fuel to create more smoke and maybe a little heat. Where there’s smoke there’s fire — but, in India, not always.
  • Egrets, crows, Peafowl, Brahminy starlings, Red-vented bulbuls, Greenshanks, Black-winged stilts, Red-wattled lapwings, the Egyptian vulture, pigeons, doves, drongos, swifts cutting the air, a pied starling.
  • A small herd of sleek, healthy Nilgai, all females except for one bull. More Nilgai appear as the train speeds past.
  • A flock of parakeets, peppermint-green in the evening sun.
  • Old men wearing white lungis, last century’s tweed sports jackets, and brilliant vermillion turbans.
  • At a quarter to six, the sun is a huge orange disc burning on the horizon.
  • The chimneys of a brickworks pour filthy black smoke into the sky.

I’d enjoyed most of the train journey. The coach had been close to empty, with just a handful of other passengers, and I’d spent most of the time gazing out the window, letting my thoughts and feelings drift where they liked, occasionally scribbling notes and impressions and observations. After dark, though, I could see almost nothing except the inside of the coach, and although sleeper-class coaches on Indian trains can be … let's say, interesting, the novelty wears off quickly. I was keen to get to Udaipur.
The manager of the Nandini guest house showed me my room, explained the hot water system, and said he’d come back with some warmer bedding, a towel, soap, and a toilet roll.
   ‘I don’t need a toilet roll.’
   He grinned and said, ‘Like an Indian.’
   I told him I’d been to India four times and he looked pleased. He came back shortly after with a towel, soap, a big thick fluffy blanket, and a small sheet-like thing he called a comforter. I couldn’t imagine it providing much comfort of any sort, but I appreciated the thought. I settled in quickly and walked up the road to the Lotus Café for an excellent navratan korma. I liked Udaipur already.

Udaipur, Thursday 19 December 2019

I had no plans for the day other than walking around, deciding where to go next, looking for birds — I hoped I’d be able to find and photograph the Bank mynas — and spending some time on the roof of the Nandini catching up on transcribing handwritten notes. I had some emailing to take care of, too, and I was disappointed that I’d been thinking too much about a job offer I’d just received and whether I’d be able to move back into the place where I’d been living for the last twenty years. Easy communication is a curse as well as a blessing, and perhaps one of the reasons the great travellers of last century were great was because they were so often completely cut off and had no choice but to immerse themselves completely in the place and culture in which they were travelling. Even Matthiessen, on his journey with Schaller to the Crystal Mountain, the land of the Snow Leopard, struggled at times to be fully present, to avoid dwelling on the relationships he’d left behind. Could he have written The Snow Leopard if he’d had an Internet connection — if not the whole time, at least frequently? Maybe he’d have written these very thoughts. I think, though, that with his stronger will than mine, his more practised discipline, his greater experience of the risk of letting the outside world interfere, he’d have travelled without the temptations of the modern ‘adventurer’: a satellite phone and a laptop.
   But at least I was writing by hand, which is a form of discipline different from that practised now, if at all, by most travellers. Most, I guess, rely on social media — facebook and Instagram — to share their experiences and as a personal record. As a means of sharing, that has important advantages. It’s quick and easy and can be not just up-to-date but up-to-the-minute. I want to suggest a disadvantage is that the social media approach lacks depth, but that’s not true: being brief is not the same as being shallow, and something concise can also be profound. It just takes effort.
On the road outside the Edelweiss, a young blonde female tourist has been caught in a conversation with a young Indian man leaning on his dusty motorbike. I wonder how long it will take her to get away — but now he leads her away down the road. She has a guide, whether she wanted one or not, and if I see her in a few hours still being led around by the same man, I won’t be surprised. To be a foreign woman in India has difficulties I don’t face — I know this from extensive listening to, and sometimes travelling briefly with, foreign women travelling in India; to be young, foreign, female, alone, and blonde must require a confidence and strength of will I can hardly imagine.
I returned to the Edelweiss in the afternoon for a warmed slice of truly excellent apple-and-cinnamon tart and another flat white that, unusually, tasted slightly like real coffee. The only other customer was a tall, lean Indian man in a black skivvy and tight blue jeans; he had fashionable stubble and sunglasses and appeared to be working on some kind of notes in a large paper pad, at least when he wasn’t studying his phone. He looked like an Indian version of Jeff Goldblum. Later, a foreign family came in. The father, in his fashionable fedora, bossed around his wife and two pre-teen daughters. They sat at the far end of the bench seating on the back wall and spent some time carefully deciding on a late lunch. I wondered what travelling as a family, particularly with two young daughters, would be like. Comments from friends, as well as from locals and other travellers, had encouraged me to think about the advantages and disadvantages of travelling alone, and I’d realised that a major advantage was the freedom to do exactly what I was doing — writing alone for long periods and not seeing the famous sights, which I mostly had no desire to see. That, too, was in contrast to the family now sharing the bench seat. From their accents, I guessed they were British. The parents kept browsing through a very new-looking and necessarily huge copy of the Lonely Planet India guidebook, and snippets of conversation (unintentionally overheard ) suggested they were deciding what to visit before closing time. The daughters played little part in the decision-making but appeared relaxed and happy to inspect their phones.
Despite my reservations about Udaipur’s extreme tourist-focus, I have to admit it’s comfortable here. Good food at reasonable prices is readily available; most cafés are comfortable for writing for long periods; most guest houses, including the Nandini, have rooftops where it’s possible to relax, to write, or to do nothing except sit and pay attention to being here, in Udaipur, in Rajasthan, in India, with Christmas approaching and the future uncertain. How did I end up here? The decision had been mine — I’d kept thinking about India and eventually made up my mind to return, probably for the final time — but as I sat in the glare of the afternoon sun on the rooftop of the Nandini, trying to understand how I’d arrived at that moment in those circumstances, nothing made any sense. Chatwin used that feeling for the title of his book, What Am I Doing Here?, and any traveller who takes the time to reflect (and if they don’t, are they really a traveller?) must surely have moments when they feel the same sense of disorientation, of strangeness, of feeling this is all happening to someone who isn’t entirely me.
   Tomorrow I book a bus ticket for Bhuj, leaving me two whole days in Udaipur. If I can get up early enough, I’ll cross the bridge to see if the Bank mynas are back. When I looked for them this morning, I saw no sign. So far, this has been my only disappointment about Udaipur.

These are excerpts from more extensive notes and writings. They're not intended to be a comprehensive record, but I hope they convey some reasonable impressions of some aspects of the journey.

1.  Udaipur's famous for many things, but Lake Pichola must be near the top of the list.
2.  On my previous train journey from Delhi to Bharatpur, the view from the window was far more restricted.
3. At Bundi these three rode past on a single motorbike (this is not uncommon and I've seen more). I grinned and they turned and came back, keen for a photo.
4.  Some train journeys are just too short.

Photos and original text © 2019 Pete McGregor

22 January 2020


Bharatpur to Bundi, Friday 13 December 2019

During my last night at Bharatpur a storm had blown through: thunder, lightning, heavy rain, gusts of wind. Perhaps that has something to do with the dense mist that so severely restricts the visibility, the world fading out of existence within a few hundred metres, at times less. But there’s still much to catch attention. A jackal in the dim grey light trots beside a field of yellow-flowering mustard before slipping between the rows as the train roars past. A hoopoe on a fence post, silhouetted against the mist yet easily identified by its crest and long, thin, slightly curved bill. Doves keep pace with the train; a crow caws from a telegraph pole with such intensity it looks as if it must topple off its perch; skinny pigs forage on the sidings just outside Sawai Madhopur, the gateway town for Ranthambhore National Park, where, in 2006 I had my first and so far only sighting of a tiger in the wild.
Around 9.30, not long after leaving Sawai Madhopur, the light begins to brighten and the fog thins, yet, even when enough sunlight breaks through to make a distant building luminous, the sky remains dense grey and hazy. I don’t know how this is possible, how a bright sky strong enough to cast distinct shadows can remain so hazy, so choked with, … with what? Smoke? Mist? A combination of both?
  At Kota, some clues: rubbish fires, stinking and smouldering with at most a few weak flames, throw continuous plumes of smoke into the air of the streets. Kota itself has all the characteristics of a smallish Indian town: the noise, the apparently anarchic bedlam of traffic that somehow works; the mixture of Hindi and English on the shop signs; the smells that range from noxious to highly perfumed; the dirt and filth and litter; the startling, vibrant colours; the bodged constructions; people abjectly destitute and people opulently affluent; and no doubt every kind of personality from irredeemable sinner to saint, with no way to tell the difference until you’re on the receiving end of the scam or the act of astonishing kindness.
  My driver’s in the middle somewhere, possibly closer to the saint end than the other. I really don’t know, but he seems honest, and his fare to the bus station isn’t exorbitant. He thought carefully before quoting me 1200 rupees to take me all the way to Bundi, and while I’m sure he included a tourist tax, I doubt it was outrageous. On the other hand, Deepak drove me all the way from Kathgodam to Naini Tal for just 500.
  He drops me at a bus that right now is leaving for Bundi. He thanks me genuinely, and for just thirty-five rupees I sit in the back of a bus with no functional suspension the whole 30 kilometres or so to Bundi. An 80/- rickshaw ride drops me at the Kasera Paradise, and my time in Bundi has begun.

Bundi, Saturday 14 December 2019

At the rooftop restaurant (Morgan’s Place) yesterday, the only other customer was finishing his lunch. He struck up a conversation. He’d been in Bundi a week already and was planning to go to Sri Lanka, where he’d heard he could find excellent surfing. He told me about the special chai he’d had with some friends at a place down the road.
  ‘At first we didn’t understand,’ he said, ‘and just had normal chai. It was OK. Then we found out we had to ask for “special” chai.’
  He smiled at the memory and said, ’It worked. We got high.’
  I couldn’t understand his accent well enough to know how to find the special chai seller, but I imagined the location would become apparent eventually if I had any interest in getting high, and, if I didn’t find it, I doubted I’d miss out on an important aspect of Bundi’s character. The place had enough charm for me.
  Yuval was from Israel and had no onward ticket so no definite departure date from India. He asked me if I played chess.
  ‘I know how to play it,’ I said, ‘but I’m no good at it.’
  He, on the other hand, was enthusiastic about the game and had taught some of his friends how to play.
  ‘Now they’re better than me,’ he said. ‘They studied hard, and most of the time they beat me.’
  We talked about the rise of the artificial intelligences and I asked if he knew how to play Go.
  ‘The Chinese game? No. I know it’s complicated, though.’
  I told him I’d heard that the world champion Go player had recently stopped playing because the machines were now superior — it was impossible to win against the new algorithms. Neither Yuval nor I could understand why someone would give up the game they loved just because they couldn’t beat an AI.
  ‘Playing a computer’s different from playing a person,’ I said.
  Yuval nodded and said, ‘Even when my friends beat me most of the time, sometimes they make a mistake and I win.’ He shrugged and added, ‘But machines, they don’t make mistakes.’
  I suggested playing sophisticated programs could help you learn — you could study what they’d done to beat you and learn from that.
  He agreed, saying, ‘Sometimes I learn things when my friends beat me.’
  He explained how he still played his friends back in Israel even while he was here in India, using an app.
  ‘All we need is an Internet connection.’
  His enthusiasm for chess was endearing, but I still wasn’t about to relent and offer to play him, even though the game would be brief and the outcome inevitable. I hadn’t played a game of chess for decades, was never serious about it, and knew little more than the rules. I could hardly remember the standard opening moves — was it the King’s or the Queen’s pawn I should move? I suppose I could have let Yuval teach me, but I was keen to get out and explore Bundi again, or at least wander aimlessly, and I wondered how well I’d remember my way around.

Quite well, as it turned out. What I didn’t expect was that Bundi would remember me. Khalid, the young shawl-seller just up the road from where I’d stayed last time, recognised me. So too did Jerry from the Tom and Jerry restaurant. I think the knife-sharpener did also, although I didn’t stop to chat — we just exchanged big grins and waves as I walked past.
   Khalid remembered I’d been here at the same time as Rainer. He and Rainer used to talk for hours over chai, he said, and he wondered if I had Rainer’s email address. I asked him how business was.      He wobbled his head.
  ‘The tourists, not many. It’s difficult. Numbers are down.’
  I told him I didn’t understand why tourism in Bundi had decreased.
  ‘I tell people to visit Bundi,’ I said. ‘Bundi’s great. I like it here. It has a good feel, and the people are friendly and welcoming.’
  I was telling the truth; my experience of Bundi has been mostly wonderful. Yesterday evening I’d ended up talking with tailor Faisal Khan. During the conversation he said he was a Mohammedan.
  ‘You’re Muslim?’
  ‘Asalaam alaikum.’
  He broke into a great smile, said ‘Wa alaikum asalaam,’ and held out his hand for me to shake.
  He sympathised over the Christchurch mosque shootings and shook his head sadly.
  ‘It was awful, horrible,’ I said, ‘but one good thing that came out of it was that it drew people together in a good way.’
  ‘Your … president,’ he said, and hesitated, not quite sure what to say.
  ‘Jacinda Ardern. Our Prime Minister?’
  ‘Yes,’ he said, and he sounded enthusiastic again. ‘She is very good …’
  He seemed to be searching for a way to express his approval.
  ‘She set a great example.’
  ‘For the world,’ Faisal said.
  I thought how lucky we’d been to have had the right leader at that awful time, and how her actions had resonated with someone even here in Bundi, in India, where usually the only awareness of New Zealand would be of its cricket team. Every Indian cricket fan — which is to say almost everyone — knew of Kane Williamson and held him in huge regard, and he was a reliable fallback if a conversation ever started to falter.
  I very much enjoyed talking with Faisal, and the feeling was mutual. He asked where I was staying.
  ‘The Kasera Paradise.’
  Next time in Bundi you stay at my house,’ he said. ‘You stay with my family.’
  I photographed him, and as I walked away I thought, Bundi is truly a great place.

This morning as I walked slowly around the lake, a man holding a baby gradually wandered closer. I paused and looked at him and smiled, and he smiled in return. I knew what he wanted.
  ‘Photo?’ I said, raising the camera.
  He nodded and held his baby up in his arms. The little human looked at me, unsure what was going on, or maybe unable to work out what the strange-looking man was, but the father was smiling. I made two photographs and showed them to him on the LCD screen. I wished I could send him the photos, but he appeared to know no English and the chances of finding him again to give him a print were impossibly small. I hoped I’d be able to find somewhere to get prints of Faisal and the other tailor and some of the others I’d photographed, or would photograph, before I left.

Bundi, Sunday 15 December 2019

Babblers arrive at the rooftop restaurant, apparently wanting to share my breakfast. They’re such endearing birds, with their fierce, crazed looks and nervous energy, that I’m almost tempted but I know better. On the other hand, perhaps I’d be safer abandoning it to them — I’ve ordered the fruit salad, muesli, curd, and honey, and it turns out to be mostly chunks of assorted fruit including green grapes and sliced strawberry which appear to have been washed — but in what? I hope the restaurant’s conscious enough of its reputation to have used boiled or filtered water for the washing, but it’s too late to turn back now. I’ll avoid it in future, but for now it’s delicious — a welcome change from a diet of Indian food and occasional pizza.
  I had chai at the dhaba on the second corner on the way to the market. Good chai, much better than the mouth-burning, ginger-heavy chai prepared for me yesterday by the aggressively friendly woman who grossly overcharged me for tea and paratha. I won’t be going back. No doubt she’ll be put out when she sees me at Krishna chai, directly across the road — excellent chai, according to the manager of the Kasera Paradise and the elderly Israeli woman, who arrived together at Jerry’s last night. I learned a lot from the conversation with them.
  This morning, though, I drink chai made by an elderly man at an ancient stall and share the seating with a family of three. The man asks where I’m from, and his wife asks me something in Hindi.
  ‘Hindi tona tona,’ I say, holding my thumb and index finger a millimetre or two apart. Everyone laughs.
  ‘Little, little,’ the woman says, with a lovely smile.
  I’m pleased to know I’ve at least got that right. The teenage daughter offers me the biscuits they’re dunking. I love these small moments.

After buying a ticket for the fort and palace, I’m immediately accosted by a man who dispenses advice at high speed.
  ‘Visit the fort first,’ he says, tugging at his shirt and explaining it will be very hot later.
  He describes his services as a guide, but I neither need nor want a guide and manage to escape easily, although not before he’s given me a stick to scare off monkeys. It proves to be an inconvenience rather than useful, and I wonder later whether he’ll try charging me for it. But, when I eventually return in the early afternoon, he’s gone, and I leave the stick on the bench from where he picked it up.

  The fort’s a labyrinth badly overgrown with thorn. In 2006 I could at least see the approximate layout of the complex, but now it’s difficult to explore in any methodical fashion. I wander not quite randomly, remembering only some step wells and the old abandoned temple at the far end. The rest is just an impression of familiarity, of a place abandoned, turned over to ghosts and goblins and the decay of time. I’ve been reading William Dalrymple’s The Anarchy: The Relentless Rise of the East India Company, and his accounts of unspeakable cruelty, of horrifically imaginative ways to torture and debase one’s enemies, make me wonder what horrors might have been perpetrated here. Maybe the deterioration of this place into ruins and its colonisation by thorn and birds and other animals isn’t such a bad thing. Nature as redeemer, or at least an aid to forgetting.

  The birds won’t cooperate, though. The warblers stay hidden, revealing themselves only in glimpses impossible to photograph; the nervous Indian robins hide in the thickets; a purple sunbird poses beautifully until the instant before I press the shutter button. But my perseverance is finally rewarded when, as I wait quietly on my way down for an Indian robin to reappear, a partridge-like bird, nervous and jumpy, dashes across the path and fossicks warily among the scrub on the edge of the path. I think it’s a Black francolin but later identify it as a Painted spurfowl. I follow it carefully for a few minutes and manage a few acceptable photos.

  Before visiting the palace, I return my monkey-scaring stick to the wall from where the garrulous dispenser of advice had collected it. He’s nowhere to be seen, but at the main gate a man asks for a photo of me with him and his friend. I’m happy to oblige: at least he asked. I’ve often noticed surreptitious videoing and wonder why I’m so fascinating. Surely I’m not that strange and peculiar? Later, in the palace, another, older man asks for a photo. His wife photographs us; he puts his arm around me, so I drape mine over his shoulders. He thanks me and asks me my name and where I’m from. How many Instagram and facebook photos of me have been posted during my last three visits to India? On my first visit, in 2006-7, selfies weren’t even a thing: the first iphone was barely a year old.

I have one more day in India and start the journey back to Aotearoa/NZ the day after. Where has the time gone?

1.  The chai wallah cooking milk to make some kind of sweet.
2.  Dogs adapting to their environment (note the macaque, too).
3.  Faisal.
4.  Father and child.
5.  In the old fort.
6.  Palace guard and guide.
7.  The bigger of these two boys asked for a photo. The smaller, blind in one eye, took his lead from his friend but didn't quite know the pose. I wonder what their lives will bring, and wish them well.

Photos and original text © 2020 Pete McGregor

07 January 2020

The birds of Bharatpur

Bharatpur, Wednesday 11 December 2019

The luck and the kindness continue. After a comfortable two-and-a-half hour train journey in A/C Chair class, I disembarked at Bharatpur and began walking to the exit. The young woman who’d been sitting across the aisle from my seat caught up with me and asked where I was going and where I was from. She lived in Bharatpur and had been attending a wedding in Delhi. Her uncle owned the Sunbird Hotel, close to the entrance to the bird sanctuary.
  ‘You can stay there if your guest house has no rooms,’ she said.
  I thanked her but didn’t say the Sunbird was well beyond my budget. Besides, I was keen to enjoy the atmosphere at the Kiran Guest House — the big, covered patio above street level; the parakeets arrowing across the evening sky; the sound of doves; the wild-looking free-range pigs with their scurrying piglets; palm squirrels chirruping. Maybe not the mosquitoes and macaques, but the former are inevitable and now, here at the Kiran, I’ve seen no sign of the latter so far.
  Her name was Monica and she was preparing to be a teacher.
  ‘What will you teach?’
  ‘Geography,’ she said.
In July she had an exam which would qualify her for government teaching jobs.
  ‘How are you getting to your guest house?’ she said.
  I told her I’d get an auto-rickshaw and asked how much I should pay.
  ‘About fifty rupees,’ she said.
  I guessed I’d be quoted at least twice that.
  ‘The tourist tax,’ I said, and she laughed politely.
  ‘I can drop you at your guest house,’ she said.
  She had a driver waiting, and they took me right to the Kiran. Ashok was outside and recognized me instantly.
  ‘Hello sir!’ he said, with his great smile.
  I shook hands with Monica and her driver and thanked them and wished her good luck for her exam. I’d had some doubts about what I’d find at Bharatpur this time, but what I found was generosity, the comfort of familiarity, and a wonderful welcome.

At the Kiran, Ashok took my dinner order, and I transferred to the table to write, protecting myself from the pestering mosquitoes with picaridin and the hood of my jacket. As the light faded, small bats began to hawk above the courtyard and an orange, gibbous moon hung low in the sky over the rooftops. I heard voices and, soon after, a man in a pale khaki safari shirt and shorts appeared.
  ‘You’re aware of the mosquitoes?’ I said.
  ‘Yeah,’ he said in a strong Scottish accent, ‘but they’re not too bad, actually.’
  They were bad enough for me, though. Recognising that, he turned the fan on, which discouraged the mosquitoes, but I was glad I was wearing my down jacket and hood. I was pleased to know I wasn’t the only guest and that, therefore, the Kiran was probably doing OK.

Andy had been here for a couple of weeks and had another week to go before returning to Scotland.   His partner had been here part of the time; she was a doctor, he worked in nature conservancy. They loved it here, he said, just chilling out, wandering around, eating at the canteen. Suddenly I felt almost embarrassed by the brevity of my visit to Bharatpur. Had I known the situation would be as good as I’d remembered, I’d have allowed at least another night.

Bharatpur, Thursday 12 December 2019

I was the second visitor into the park. The light was still low, and the haze, almost like a fog, made photographing almost impossible. The first few, of jackals on the road not far from the entrance, could best be described as ‘atmospheric’. As the light increased, though, the opportunities for better photographs improved. The ancient monster of a bicycle I’d rented was set up for riders five foot tall or shorter, but they all were; I had no choice. Pedalling was hard, but the seat was well sprung, the brakes worked, and the bike got me where I wanted to go far faster than walking. That being said, I began to wonder just how much more efficient it really was, because I was stopping every few minutes when yet another bird showed up and invited a portrait. I wasn’t keeping a record of what I saw — the photos would record most of the birds, and the few I didn’t photograph I’d probably remember. Even if I forgot, I wouldn’t feel I’d missed something. Collecting lists stopped being a thing for me a great many years ago, and the value of being able to point to a list and say, ‘I saw X number of species that day,’ escapes me. I suppose the twitchers and collectors can rationalise it. I, on the other hand, rationalised not keeping a list by telling myself that anything I forgot can’t have been important enough to remember.
  I entered the park around 6.30, and I returned the bike and walked back to the Kiran shortly after 2 pm. That was as much as I could handle, mostly because I’d been on the go, pedalling that old dunger, for most of those seven-and-a-half hours. I was hungry, too. I’d assumed I’d be able to get decent food at one of the canteens but was dismayed to find they sold only chips (small bags of potato crisps), a handful of types of biscuits and cakes, and small tetrapaks of mango Frooti. Tea was apparently also available, but no proper chai-making equipment was evident, and I suspected ‘tea’ would be a tea bag in hot water. At 11.30, in desperation, I bought a ‘fruit cake’, which was a small, coffin-shaped lozenge of sweet cake with tiny bits of unidentifiable dried fruit mixed throughout, and a mango Frooti. That revived me, but I began to flag a few hours later and knew my time in the park was up. It had lived up to my hopes and therefore exceeded my expectations; I’d seen and photographed many birds and had finally succeeded in making a good photograph of a hoopoe.
I’d wondered whether I might see Andy in the park but the only obvious foreigners were a couple about my age or slightly older. They wore matching clothing: black jackets and off-white trousers. Later in the afternoon they turned up at the Kiran, and I had a short conversation with the man. He sounded French and said they’d visited Keoladeo once before, fifteen years ago, in 2005. He remarked on the cold, which wasn’t surprising because I was sitting at the outside table typing notes, wearing my down jacket and edging mittens, with my hood up. When they were here at roughly the same time of year in 2005, the air was warm, he said. They’d also noticed big changes in the park — far fewer birds this time, and now there were cattle where they’d been seeing much larger numbers of deer.
  The lower numbers of birds might have had something to do with the amount of water, though. On my first two visits, in 2006 and 2014, the monsoon had missed Keoladeo, and although the variety of birds had been good, it wasn’t until I visited in 2017 and found the place well flooded that I understood why the park was world famous. Huge numbers of storks and other waterbirds were nesting on the islands, and although today the main areas seemed to have plenty of water, the vast flocks had reduced to just good numbers.
  I agreed about the deer. On my previous visits, chital had been abundant; this time I saw a few individuals and groups of two or three here and there. I’d seen sambar often, too, but this time saw just one group of three and a lone stag. On the other hand, I saw several groups of wild pigs (whether they’re truly wild or are the spill-over from the semi-feral inhabitants of the surrounding town isn’t clear to me).
  At the park entrance a notice recommends visitors stay on the paths and not venture into the untracked areas. The reason: recent leopard sightings. I can believe leopards would live in the park — they live in Mumbai, after all.
  Five-thirty approaches and the mosquitoes begin to appear. Time for repellent. I sit outside and talk with Andy. He visits the sanctuary each day and loves it, and gradually he’s coming to know some of the individual birds or at least where to look for them.
  ‘I’m not much good at identifying the birds of prey,’ he says (I agree; you need to know the field marks well), ‘but I know to check in that tree over there and I’m sure to see a Marsh harrier perched there.’
  He’s noticing the interactions, too — how one species chases off another — their habits, their patterns of activity. He asks me what’s been my highlight, and I have to think hard.
  ‘The owlet was pretty special,’ I say, and he nods.
  ‘Cute wee birds.’
Back in Scotland, he works to fight wildlife crime, and he enlightens me about some of the practices continuing on grouse moors. I’d thought those days were long gone, but although the trend is in the right direction, it’s painfully slow, and any kind of predator, be it furred or feathered, isn’t likely to survive long on a grouse moor, even if it’s under strict legal protection. Roughly one fifth of the area of Scotland (or is it the Highlands?) is grouse moor, Andy says, managed so the uber-rich can shoot driven birds.
  ‘Why don’t they just farm them and release them?’ I ask, thinking that, despite the questionable ethics, the environmental effects might improve.
  Andy shakes his head. ‘You can’t raise grouse in captivity. Not like pheasants.’
  He tells me how the chicks are often dosed with antibiotics in the field. ‘They freeze, and the keepers can just pick them up and dose them. Sometimes after a shoot they sell some birds as “organic” meat, but it’s ridiculous — they’re full of antibiotics, not to mention lead shot. I wouldn’t eat them.’
  Neither would I.
  Ashok brings Andy’s dinner, which is a kofta of some kind. ‘Meatballs,’ Andy says, and they smell wonderful. I thought I wasn’t missing meat, but I’ve suddenly developed a craving for meatballs. I’ve seen butchering in India, though, and I can wait another six weeks or so until I’m back in New Zealand. My own meal of dal fry, rice, and chapatis turns up later, and although it’s not as delicious as the smell of Andy’s meatballs, it still does the job.

  Tomorrow I go to Bundi.

I'm back in Delhi now, and tomorrow (8 January) I leave for Nepal. My main goal in Nepal is Bardia National Park, after which I'll return to Delhi on the 19th for the last few days of this journey.

1.  Darter
2.  Common babbler
3.  Rose-ringed parakeet
4.  Treepie and friend
5.  Jacana
6.  Yellow-eyed babbler

Photos and original text © 2020 Pete McGregor

27 December 2019

More conversations (India)

Sunday 8 December 2019

At the Haldwani bus station, I learned there was indeed a Volvo to Delhi at ten. Anxious about misunderstanding the instructions I’d been given, I checked again at another ticket window.
  ‘Dilli Volvo kahaan hai?’ I said — ‘Where is the Delhi Volvo?’
  As usual, I got an answer in Hindi, but when I clearly didn’t understand, the man told me in halting English that the conductor was coming outside soon and would meet me. Shortly afterwards, an elderly man came up to me and told me the number of the bus I needed to board.
 ‘Your bus is number one five one nine,’ he said, and repeated it: ‘One five one nine.’
  He wasn’t the conductor, just an elderly man who understood English well enough and wanted to help me out.
 When the bus arrived, I joined the queue to board, hoping the advice I’d been given that I could buy a ticket on the bus was correct. The crowd looked as if it would completely fill the bus.
  But the conductor, a young, slightly timid man, suddenly looked at me and said, ‘Your seat number is 39.’
  I found seat number 39 and settled in. I love this feeling of knowing the last obstacles have been cleared and I can look forward to a long journey with no responsibilities and no decisions to make until I arrive hours later at my destination.

  Two young men took the seats across the aisle. One immediately began talking to me: where was I from, where had I been, did I know Naini Tal, and so on. He seemed confused about whether New Zealand was a country. Was it part of Europe? To which region did it belong? His companion, embarrassed, leaped in and explained to him that New Zealand was independent, a country in its own right, but I wasn’t offended by his poor geographical knowledge. Depending on the definition of a city, New Zealand only had 4-6 major cities, some of which would hardly register on an Indian scale.
  ‘New Zealand has almost five million people, total. Wellington is the capital. Auckland is the largest city; about one-and-a-half million people. Only small compared to Indian cities.’
  He appeared mildly astonished: ‘Oh!’ he said.
  ‘But we have a good cricket team,’ I said. ‘Kane Williamson is a good captain. I like his attitude.’
  They both nodded, agreeing and commenting on Williamson’s skill with the bat. The man who didn’t know New Zealand was a country, nor where in the world it was, could nevertheless talk knowledgeably about New Zealand cricket and commiserated over our World Cup final loss. The other man asked if I was a cricket fan.
  ‘I like cricket,’ I said, ‘but I don’t know as much as I should about it.’
  This was true, and I half expected a quick lesson in the arcane terminology of cricket, but he had other advice in mind. After enquiring where I’d go after Delhi and hearing I was headed for Bharatpur and the Keoladeo bird sanctuary (again, he had to explain to his companion where Bharatpur was, and that it was famous for the sanctuary), he suggested I visit Jaipur. He’d studied there for three years as well as spending time studying in Kerala — no doubt the reason his geographical knowledge was so much better than his fellow traveller’s. But I had no intention of going near Jaipur, one of the few places in India I disliked after several bad experiences. The only highlight for me had been spending time with two young Scottish cyclists who shared my interest in birds and proved excellent company over the 2006/7 New Year, and I wasn’t going to count on finding similar good luck to compensate for corrupt rickshaw drivers, expensive accommodation, and the absence of anything of significant interest to me. I thanked him for the suggestion and left it at that.
Once the bus got going, my two new friends settled back and I could relax and look out the windows — more accurately, the small amounts of window exposed between the curtains most passengers had drawn to exclude the blazing sun. This lack of a clear view of the outside world no doubt contributed to several other passengers suffering from motion sickness, and when I finally disembarked in the evening in Delhi and smelt the acrid stench near the front of the bus and saw a large volume of vomit covering two of the seats, I realised the nine-hour journey must have been a nightmare for some passengers. Fortunately, the journey hadn’t affected me, and the closest I came to feeling nauseous was when I saw and smelt that awful mess.
Some haggling with rickshaw pimps achieved nothing, and after a half-hearted attempt I gave up. In hindsight, I thought the rate fair, given it was rush hour and the journey took about three quarters of an hour. I got the driver to drop me near the New Delhi Railway Station entrance to Main Bazaar and walked quickly to the Smyle. Stepping in the door felt like arriving home.

Monday 9 December 2019

In the early morning a black kite cruises through the brown-tinged haze above Pahar Ganj and, soon after, a pigeon and a crow alight simultaneously on the aerials a short distance from the rooftop where I’ve come to write before the breakfast crowds. On this journey, I’ve relied more heavily on writing directly on the laptop and, as I do so, I find the flow of words becomes easier and the way I think more closely resembles the way I think when writing by hand, which is to say I’m less conscious of the process of typing and more caught up in the thoughts themselves. The obvious advantage of typing over handwriting is that it’s so much faster: if recording events and thoughts is important, which it is, then typing’s much superior — or at least more comprehensive. The obvious question, then, is why do I write by hand at all?
  The answer’s simple and probably unsatisfactory for those who don’t write much by hand: I enjoy it. Something about the feel and sight of words forming on the page, of seeing page after page of handwriting accumulating, forming a unique pattern, and knowing that the things and thoughts contained and described there are new, that they did not exist until they arrived almost spontaneously from the pen onto the page, delights me. In some ways it’s comforting, too, although I don’t fully understand why. Perhaps it’s like the solace of ritual?
 Perhaps it’s also something of a displacement activity, although a constructive one. Instead of scrutinising my phone and ‘consuming content’ (that execrable phrase), I’m at least creating something. Whether it’s of any value depends on the reader, even if that’s just me or the psychoanalysts who might, far in the future, find in it interesting material for their case studies of weirdos — I mean, who, at the close of the second decade of the twenty-first century, writes by hand with a fountain pen in a paper notebook, for reasons he doesn’t understand? Of course, I could just sit here thinking these thoughts, hands in pockets to keep them warm, but within minutes most of those thoughts would be gone. Anything worth remembering would require special, repeated effort to remember, and would more likely result in my taking out the Notebook and scribbling down the thought.
Other answers are at least partly true. From time to time, the sight of me scribbling in my cahier can be a conversation starter. On my last evening in Naini Tal, I was writing at a small, green table while I waited for my veg pasta when a man approached and asked if he might join me.
  ‘Of course,’ I said and indicated the other chair.
  He sat down and complimented my handwriting.
  ‘Lots of practice,’ I said.
  He asked lots of questions — so many and so persistently that the conversation began to feel like an interrogation. However, unlike the usual questions about my marital status, number of children, etc., he wanted to understand what I was writing.
  ‘Travelogue?’ he said.
  I didn’t want to try explaining in detail what I wrote because I didn’t know how to describe it accurately. He kept pressing for detail, though, and I tried listing various things I wrote about: things that happened; things I saw; people I met; conversations; things I was thinking about.
  ‘It’s just something I do,’ I said. ‘I’ve written since I was about this high.’
  I held my hand close to the floor.
  I then tried deflecting the questions by telling him I teach writing back in New Zealand; it’s close enough to the truth. He wanted to know if I was working here on my trip to India.
  ‘No, just travelling.’
  ‘For personal reasons.’
  ‘Yes; personal reasons. Not working.’
  I asked where he was from and what he did for work.
  ‘Haridwar,’ he said. ‘You know Haridwar?’
  ‘Yes; I’ve been there several times.’
  He explained where Haridwar is anyway.
  ‘I work for the Government. Government Office.’
  ‘Yes? What work do you do there?’
  ‘I am a tax inspector,’ he said, smiling at me, and I wondered whether part of his curiosity was professional; whether he was checking whether I was breaching my visa conditions. Probably he wasn’t, but I’m glad I had nothing to hide and gave him no cause for suspicion. I suspect, though, that he was just curious in the way most local people anywhere would be curious about someone obviously foreign, obviously doing something out of the ordinary, like writing by hand with a fountain pen in a paper notebook.

Tuesday 10 December 2019

The Madan at a quarter to ten is the busiest I’ve seen it so far, perhaps because this is the earliest I’ve managed to get here. Three foreigners sit outside; one on one bench seat lights a cigarette soon after I arrive; the other two sit uncomfortably side by side, politely ignoring each other. One of those two leaves soon after, and the other, with what sounds like a French accent, orders another short black. He sits again and fiddles with an irregular lump of reddish stone about two-thirds the size of a golf ball. He turns it over and over and shines his phone’s flashlight through it, apparently entranced. Perhaps it’s a displacement activity, like a phone is for so many people now, or like my scribbling by hand. If not, I wonder how thoroughly the man must examine his rock to be satisfied.
  He fidgets, looks around, catches my eye, and responds to my acknowledgement with a smile.
  ‘What is the rock?’ I ask.
  He grins and says, ‘Ruby.’
  We try to talk from a distance, but the noise from the street makes anything meaningful impossible, so, gathering my bag and pens and cahier, I move to his bench seat and ask if I might join him.
  ‘Sure. Of course.’
  The ruby is uncut, still with encrusting dirt in its pits, but he shines the phone light through it to show me the gorgeous colour. He’ll clean it, getting rid of any dirt, and polish it with increasingly fine abrasives, but will otherwise leave it as it is.
  ‘You lose a lot when it’s cut,’ he says, and suggests roughly half the stone might be wasted.
  He sells these uncut gems to New Age stores back in Europe. By now, I’m convinced he’s from France, but experience has taught me it’s better to ask than misidentify someone’s nationality. Besides, my ear for accents isn’t great. This time, though, I’m correct, and when I ask, he confirms he’s from France.
  ‘How often do you come to India?’ I say.
  ‘About once a year,’ he replies.
  He’s keen to talk, almost agitated. He explains how you can’t buy just one stone like this from the mine; you have to buy a huge bag — one or two lakhs’ worth of stones (roughly two to four thousand NZ dollars) — and hope it contains enough good stones to turn a profit.
  ‘It’s like gambling,’ he says, laughing. ‘You can’t go through the whole bag.’
  Then he adds, ‘You won’t lose your money though. You get your money’s worth. I won’t lose my money.’
  His insistence that he won’t lose on the deal sounds as if he’s trying to convince himself rather than me.

  He thinks I’m Australian — I don’t take offence — but even when I say I’m from New Zealand he tells me there’s good money to be made selling opals in India (Australia’s renowned for its opals). I tell him New Zealand doesn’t have a gem industry but we do have wonderful jade of several types, which we call pounamu or greenstone. I show him the pounamu poria, the bird-tethering ring, I’d been gifted when I left Landcare Research in 2004, and he immediately shines his phone light through it.
  ‘It’s beautiful!’ he says. ‘Very clear.’
  He explains how his ruby isn’t top quality because it contains lines instead of being perfectly clear. He shines his light through an edge of the stone.
  ‘See the lines?’ he says.
  ‘Ah, yes,’ I lie.
  I can’t see any lines, just a beautiful, luminous, ruby red, but I assume he, with his younger and well-trained eyes, can see obvious lines.

 I’ve enjoyed talking with him and have learned a little more about India and the kinds of things other travelers do here, but the time has come for me to move on. I’m about to ask if I might photograph him but he jumps to his feet, pays for his coffee, then puts his hands together in an unaffected namaste and thanks me for the conversation. Later, I think I should have asked him for the photo then, but hindsight’s only useful for the next time. I should, I decide, think faster, act sooner, and muster more gumption. For now, though, acknowledging my shortcomings won’t retrieve the portrait that got away.

I leave Bhuj, in Gujarat, this afternoon, heading for Jamnagar. I'm not sure how long I'll be there, but my time in India's running out. On 8 January I go to Nepal, returning on the 19th and flying out on the first leg back to Aotearoa/New Zealand, on 23 January. That's the plan, but you know what they say about plans. Hope you had a great Christmas, and a Happy New Year to you all.

1.  The rickshaw wallah.
2.  The banana wallah who (typically) stopped smiling until after I'd photographed him.
3.  Bala, the vegetable wallah I photographed on my last visit to India. He still had the print I'd given him, and he now has a new one.
4.  One of the other veg wallahs near Main Bazaar in Pahar Ganj. He too, like the others I photographed, received a print the next day.

Photos and original text © 2019 Pete McGregor

17 December 2019

The cold at Kausani (India)

Thursday 28 November 2019

   Mr Singh sells tea and spices from the Uttam Tea Centre, a little shop at the chowk (junction) in the middle of Main Bazaar. I met him on my first journey in India and have visited him on every journey since. As I approach his shop I see him sitting in the shadows inside; he looks up, recognises me instantly even though I’m still a long way off, and waves a greeting. He stands, comes out smiling, and shakes my hand before ushering me into the back of his shop, which is tiny and redolent with the aromatic scent of fenugreek being packaged into 100-gram lots by the woman he always refers to as his friend. Steep, narrow, iron stairs ascend into the darkness of a loft. What’s up there? It looks like a haunt of goblins, and the shop, with the compartments that cover its walls crammed with all manner of packages, some looking untouched for decades, has an almost mediaeval atmosphere. Around fourteen years ago, on my first visit, it looked the same.

   Our conversations are necessarily stilted because of our limited common language: in other words, Mr Singh’s basic English and my stumbling attempts to simplify my basic English enough for him to understand. Even the content tends to be the same: tea, the weather in Delhi, the medicinal uses of spices — fenugreek, he tells me, is good for diabetes. Inevitably, age crops up. How old am I? I tell him.
   ‘You look younger!’ he says, with immediate enthusiasm, and I want to believe him.
   He’s hardly likely to tell me I look older, but his quick response and (perhaps expertly-feigned) delight make me think perhaps I’m not going downhill as fast as I feared. In fact, my health on this trip has so far been good, with no trace of the gut problems for which Delhi is infamous, and no difficulty handling a full day on steep mountainsides at altitude looking for Himalayan monal with Sally and Prem. Long may that continue.

   Mr Singh wants to know if I’ve been to the Golden Temple. Yes, I say, and tell him, truthfully, that I had a good feeling there, that the place felt welcoming. I ask if he’s from Amritsar.
   He nods and says, ‘Yes, I am from Amritsar.’
   ‘You must have been to the Golden Temple many times?’
   ‘Once a month!’ he says, with even more enthusiasm. He’s proud of his record.

   He buys me chai, as he always does, and I buy second flush Darjeeling from him. Even though my visits are so infrequent, they have something of the feel of ritual. These are the quiet, genuine interactions that I love so much about travelling repeatedly in India — these and so much more, like writing by hand on the rooftop of the Smyle Inn, listening to the 5.30 azan, watching black kites soaring in the dusk and crows flying to roost and late lost pigeons unable to decide on which ledge to spend the night. An evening breeze shivers the ivy leaves along the white-painted split cane wall, and the fact that it’s artificial, not real, ivy doesn’t matter.

Tuesday 3 December 2019

   At Bhowali I arrived just as the bus for Almora (70/-) was about to leave.
   ‘Almora?’ I said to the man I assumed was the conductor, and I pointed at the bus, which was just starting to move.
   I climbed aboard, couldn’t fit my big bag in the luggage rack, so had to leave it leaning against my legs as I braced myself for several hours of standing in a moving bus.
   But after the conductor had boarded, he tapped my shoulder and pointed to his seat. I couldn’t believe my luck but wasted no time in seating myself with the small bag on my lap. I wondered how long I’d get to sit there, but he was in no hurry and only shifted me when another seat became available. Comfortable seats the entire way — amazing. If he hadn’t looked so much like Masterchef Australia judge George Calombaris, I’d have liked him anyway.

   Parakeets — ringnecks, I assume, although I couldn’t see them well enough — perched in a tree above the river. At first I took them for some kind of large fruit, then for odd leaves. They looked out-of-place and at-home at the same time and filled me with that strange, inchoate sense of mingled joy and sadness that I don’t understand but which somehow gives meaning to a life.

   Huge birds are circling low down in the narrow valley — so low I can look down on them as they turn. Several look like lammergeiers, and I assume the others are too, but I can’t be sure. I swivel in my seat to stare at them for as long as possible and I’m sure the other passengers must be doing likewise, except at me.

   On the shaded side of the mountain, a man by the cold roadside slowly lifts soup to his mouth. He looks as if he’s been cold his entire life and must do everything in slow motion to conserve energy. How far during his life has he travelled from his home? What does he believe about foreign places? Why am I the lucky one, or at least the privileged one, and would he envy me and wish to change places? To feel sorry for him would be patronising, but I acknowledge my good fortune. The jeep drives on.

   Even before I’d reached Almora, I’d decided to try for Kausani. The Hotel Uttarakhand had become a goal, almost a grail, and the memories of the significant times I’d had there on the previous journeys pulled me onwards. I almost changed my mind when I kept getting incomprehensible directions to the shared jeeps in Almora, but eventually someone with good English pointed down a set of steep steps and said go right at the bottom. I’d only just started towards the first jeep when a tall, beaming man called out ‘Kausani?’
  ‘This one,’ he said, pointing, and he escorted me to the jeep, hoisted my bag onto the roof rack, and ushered me into the back of the jeep, saying, ‘Please sit.’
   I sit. An animated argument bordering on a fight breaks out in front of a dhaba, and a tiny lizard skips through limp weeds and broken glass on top of a rock-&-cement retaining wall next to the jeep.

   Nothing happens and no more passengers get into the jeep. I get out and go to the dhaba, order a paratha and get served two, both of which I manage to eat. One of the staff, gentle and slow, shows me how to use the arcane tap to wash my fingers. He gets a jug of water and pours it over my hands as I wash them, and I’m touched by his quiet willingness to help. The cook whets his knife on the concrete floor, right in the main thoroughfare of the dhaba, then pops it straight back into the cutlery cup.

   More waiting, then suddenly I’m transferred in haste to a different jeep and we’re on our way. From time to time I share the back with one or two people but have plenty of room. A mother and daughter get in, and the mother returns my smile. The daughter doesn’t travel well, though, and eventually she leans out the window, and when she’s finished vomiting she wipes tears from her eyes. Out of respect, I’ve looked away, but I catch a glimpse of her mother rubbing her back. They stop the jeep, pay the driver, and cross the road to a small collection of shacks. I don’t know if that was their destination or whether the mother decided to take a break and let her daughter recover.

   About two-thirds of the way to Kausani, I’m transferred to another jeep, which suits me fine because I have the back to myself and a more careful driver. It’s a straightforward, winding drive the rest of the way, and when I’m dropped off I look for the manager of the Hotel Uttarakhand, who seems to live at the chowk waiting for clients. Rob from Louisiana, who’d been living near Kausani for six years when I visited last time. We’d had an excellent conversation over breakfast at the restaurant, and I’d been hoping to renew our acquaintance. But time moves on; the world changes; everything eventually becomes memory and is finally lost. I have two full days here to relax and think and enjoy the birds and the spectacular mountains and, with luck, get rid of the sore throat that arrived last night and which I hope is not a symptom of something worse.
But he’s not there, and the hotel’s apparently deserted, although the reception’s open. I rearrange my gear and leave my larger bag out of sight in the office, and I’m about to go looking when someone calls out and walks up. It’s the new manager, and the slight sense of disappointment I’d felt at not being greeted by the man who’d looked after me on all three previous visits strengthens. The new manager gives me an excellent room for half the advertised price and I pay for three nights. It’s good to be back, even though the former manager’s gone and the restaurant’s closed for extensive renovations, so I have no chance of meeting him.

   I keep thinking about an incident on the final jeep ride. When I’d been transferred to the second jeept, an exuberantly cheerful man who looked to be in his sixties kept proclaiming the price of the trip, apparently in an attempt to make sure I was charged the correct price. I thanked him, although the price he was calling out was exactly what I’d already been quoted. Later, partway to our destination, he turned in the seat he shared with several others and grinned at me as I relaxed on my own in the back of the jeep. He stretched out his arm, his fist closed, and nodded vigorously, beaming. He did this several times, then slowly opened his fist to reveal what looked like a small licorice twist. He nodded again, offering it to me.
   ‘Danyavad, but no,’ I said, and shook my head and waved it away while smiling my thanks. I neither needed nor wanted a small licorice twist.
   He took it well, nodding and withdrawing his hand. Later, I thought about what he’d offered me. I think it might have been a small piece of hashish.

Wednesday 4 December 2019

   Outside my window the early morning sunlight gleams pale and white on the great peaks — Trisul, Nanda Devi, Panchachuli, and others — and thin cirrus hangs over the skyline. I sip Mr Singh’s Darjeeling tea, made illicitly using my mini immersion heater in a metal cup, and try to recover from the coldest night I’ve endured for many years. A man who looks just similar enough to the former manager to make me wonder if he’s related asks if I would like breakfast. Yes, I say, asking for milk coffee and banana porridge (it doesn’t take long to get used to menu terminology in India). Milk coffee is OK, but he looks worried at the request for porridge, even though it’s on the menu. He goes away, checks, comes back and tells me it’s not an option.
   ‘Porridge is not possible,’ he says (more terminology). ‘Butter toast? Omelette slice?’
   I choose omelette slice, assuming it’s some kind of variation on an omelette. A short time later the coffee and omelette slice arrive, the latter comprising a kind of unfolded omelette with a piece of toast embedded in the middle — like a cross between French toast and an omelette. It’s good, and it’s a reasonable alternative to banana porridge, but tomorrow I might see if banana porridge is possible at the Yogi restaurant.

   In the morning sun I’m warm, and enjoying the feeling, but my left leg’s in shade and feels chilled; the contrast between sun and shade is astounding. A crow circles, cawing, and I’m again struck by the way their big wings flex when they fly. Their flight seems so deliberate, so intentional, that it’s hard not to believe these birds always have a plan.

   A small Indian fly has taken a liking to me, but the feeling isn’t mutual, and I’d be just as happy if it found someone or something else to pester. Maybe it’s attracted by my hair, which is still damp from the bucket shower I survived this morning. The shower head did no more than dribble hot water from a great height, so I resorted to the widespread practice of pouring mugs of warm water over myself. It works, but while one body part warms up briefly, the rest freezes. In the cavernous bathroom, which felt like the interior of a crevasse, I began shivering so much I started to wonder whether I was becoming hypothermic. At least I ended up thoroughly clean, though, and once I’d towelled myself dry and dressed, I felt warm for the first time since the previous day.

   In the evening I walked the short distance to the chowk and, instead of the Yogi, which has prices in line with the tourist orientation of the Hotel Uttarakhand’s restaurant, tried a restaurant that looked more geared for locals: the Aditya. The prices were only two thirds of those at the hotel and the Yogi, and I ordered aloo gobi (80/-) and plain rice (70/-). The waiter, his head wrapped in a chequered cloth, mustered his best English, checked carefully, and pointed to the two items.
   ‘Aloo gobi; plain rice. Aloo gobi dry,’ he said. ‘Dry?’
   He seemed to be checking that I wanted rice with my aloo gobi, as if rice was unusual for a dry dish like aloo gobi. Rice would be the usual accompaniment for a wet dish like dahl. I confirmed I wanted rice with my dry aloo gobi and he nodded and shouted the order to the cook. Soon after, a good serving of aloo gobi and a plate of hot rice (lukewarm or even cold rice is always a possibility) arrived. Whether the cook had adjusted the recipe on seeing his client, I don’t know, but unlike the fiery equivalent at the Capital dhaba in Delhi, this was comfortably spicy. I hadn’t realised I was so hungry until I began eating and had no trouble finishing it all. Anyone knowing how little I usually eat would immediately recognise that as a sign of the quality of the food. I returned the following night, asked for the same order, and found it just as satisfying. The menu was consistently two-thirds of the price of the same items at the hotel and at the Yogi.

Thursday 5 December 2019

   Banana porridge is possible at the Yogi this morning, and I’m grateful to be able to sit here and scribble, a little before eight in the morning, while I wait for my possible porridge and milk coffee. The sky is white, dull, and cold. My cold is developing slowly, with a slight cough, some soreness at the back of the throat, and enough post-nasal drip to be occasionally annoying. Otherwise, it’s not yet causing significant problems, but I’m torn between staying here where fresh air as well as banana porridge is possible (although anywhere, particularly in or near town, smoke can fill the air quickly and without warning), and returning to lower altitudes where warmth makes life easier but the air is unavoidably filthy.

   The banana porridge is excellent, with a grainy, chewy texture and good flavour. Topped with sliced banana and accompanied by a milk coffee, it makes a filling breakfast that keeps me going until I return for the final time around midday for lunch. Then, knowing this will be the last time I’ll eat there (I’ve already decided to eat at the Aditya for dinner), I explain to the proprietor that I’ll be leaving for Naini Tal and Delhi in the morning, and I ask if I might photograph him. He agrees, and stands formally for the portrait, replacing his usual beaming smile with an expression that only just manages to look slightly pleased.

   A man in a turquoise jersey with sparkly thread woven into the yarn (typical in Uttarakhand) comes into the Yogi and stands next to me, peering at my writing. I look up and greet him with a namaste. He grins and leans over to look a little more closely at the cahier, the open page three-quarters full of handwriting.
   ‘Very comfortable writing,’ he says.
   ‘Danyavad’ — thank you.
   ‘Very comfortable writing,’ he says again and strolls out of the café, smiling. I think he came in just to check me out.

   After breakfast I go for a long walk along the upper road, during which I see a red-vented bulbul — the first of the trip — and a pair of infuriating woodpeckers that almost but not quite allow good photographs. Yet, more sightings of these distinctive birds, always busy, somehow makes them more familiar, and the compulsion to photograph them decreases.

   By the time I get back to my room, the morning’s almost gone. I make Darjeeling tea and drink it on my tiny balcony in the cold shade. The plastic stacka chairs, once white, have pitted and turned grime-grey with age, as has the matching plastic coffee table, but I’m comfortable sitting on the blue foam pad that insulates my arse from the cold plastic and provides padding I don’t naturally possess. The Himalayas shine, hazy in in the midday light, and although this is not the spectacular, colourful, sunset view for which Kausani is famous, I never tire of the sight, nor of the sense of great height as the steep foothills fall away below the hotel into the huge basin between Kausani and the eventual rise of the great peaks.
   But a young man lights a rubbish fire just beyond the hotel, sending clouds of filthy, stinking, dark smoke into the air, and it drifts across the hotel as if drawn to me. All the fires I’ve seen in India have been like this: smouldering rather than burning strongly, with little flame but much foul smoke. The few exceptions include the fires lit by Prem and Dina, who seem to understand the true purpose of a fire. Not doubt other, robust fires happen in India, but so far not when I’m around.

   This morning as I ate my excellent porridge in the Yogi, I looked up to see a tall man walking past, looking in. He smiled and waved, and I did likewise — the former manager of the Hotel Uttarakhand! He was waiting just up the road on some steps in the sun when I left and waved me over. We chatted for a while — easier than most conversations here because his English was the best I’d encountered in Kausani. He’d recognised me and wanted to know how long I’d been here, how long I was travelling, whether I was interested in visiting a nearby temple (I wasn’t, but I liked the reminder of how he’d always tried to sell me some kind of activity), and other usual things. We shook hands and I told him it was good to see him, and I meant it. For me, he was an essential part of the character of Kausani, and without him, the Hotel Uttarakhand was just another hotel, significant mostly for my memories of how it had been.

Friday 6 December 2019

   This morning the foothills between Kausani and the gleaming Himalaya appear more prominent than at any time since I’ve been here. It’s steep, dissected country, even though it appears lower than Kausani. Yet, here and there, small villages shine in the morning sun, and I’m conscious of how, in this tremendously populated country, so many people inhabit the mountains in a way we don’t in New Zealand. The reasons are obvious: apart from our tiny population — at just short of five million, New Zealand’s population is only the same as a medium-sized Indian city — and low population density, distances are short and roads good, and in most places, visiting the mountains need never be more than a day’s excursion there and back. Getting out of the city often takes much of the travelling time. Here, just the drive in a shared jeep from Almora to Kausani takes several hours, and by Indian standards that road’s in good condition. To get from Naini Tal to one of those small villages on the slopes of the Himalayan foothills would take the better part of a day, even in a nimble taxi.
   A black kite flies past, setting off on the day’s rounds. Earlier, I’d heard the monotonous call of a Great barbet and liked the fact that I now knew what made that sound. Vision is so easily an hegemony, overpowering the other senses, but paying attention to birds can lessen that dominance.

   At Domino’s in Naini Tal — a relief from yet another aloo gobi or dal and rice and naan, all of which I nevertheless enjoy — a man with good English acknowledges I was in the queue before him and explains to the confused young man behind the till that it’s pointless asking for my phone number. He shakes his head in solidarity with me, exasperated at the senselessness of the Domino’s standard operating procedures. It’s those kinds of small kindnesses that make travelling a joy.

   Like this morning, for example, when, as I waited for the bus to Almora, the former manager of the Hotel Uttarakhand again saw me and came over, smiling and holding his hand out. I told him I’d try for Almora and perhaps Bhowali and Naini Tal, and he nodded. We tried to hold a conversation but, although his English was good, I struggled to understand him. I asked if the hotel was under new management and he explained something about something (prices perhaps?) going up, then coming down. Eventually we shook hands again.
   ‘Next time,’ he said.
   ‘Next time.’
   I didn’t try again to say I doubted there would be a next time. He wandered down the road and I continued waiting for the bus. When it arrived, a small band of people rushed over. The conductor leaned out the window, harangued them, then the bus moved on. I didn’t get a chance to ask if the bus was going to Almora but presumed it wasn’t because I guessed most of the crowd were headed that way. However, I’ve never understood the apparently arbitrary way local buses stop for some people who wave them down but ignore others, and I had no idea what the conductor was saying other than from his grumpy tone.

   Then I heard someone calling.
   I looked and saw the former hotel manager beckoning.
   ‘Come!’ he said. ‘Bus to Bhowali. Come quickly.’
   He’d stopped the bus, checked, and learned it was going not just to Almora but all the way to Haldwani, meaning I could get off at Bhowali and catch a jeep to Naini Tal.
   We shook hands again and I climbed aboard, the conductor pointing me to the front of the bus in the driver’s area. The journey to Bhowali wasn’t as comfortable as it had been in the opposite direction, travelling to Kausani several days earlier, but I’ve had far worse, and if not for the former manager’s help I wouldn’t have had the trip at all, or not until much later and as a probably more complicated, expensive, and time-consuming series of shorter trips.
   If there is a next time, another visit to Kausani, which I doubt, I’d be worried I wouldn’t get to meet the manager again and try once more to hold a conversation that would probably fail. But conversation is just one part of communication, and in this case it wasn’t what was important.

Photos (keep an eye on my Instagram account for more from India)
1.  Streaked laughing thrush, Kausani.
2.  Barred tree creeper, Kausani.
3.  Indian Himalaya from Kausani. Nanda Devi is the slightly less luminous peak in the middle (it's much further back).
4.  The main patio of the Hotel Uttarakhand in Kausani.
5.  The manager of the Yogi Cafe at Kausani.

Photos and original text © 2019 Pete McGregor