24 December 2017

Bird skull stories

Magpie skull
‘Tell me a story’, you say, so I think of the first thing that comes to mind and wonder how I can turn it into a story. First, though, you must tell me whether you want a true story or something made up, with fabulous characters that might not even exist, that not even a David Attenborough documentary could show you — creatures even more astonishing than the mantis shrimp or Vampyroteuthis infernalis, the vampire squid from hell — creatures that might live in Moominvalley with strange names from Tove Jansson’s imagination (although some real creatures have wonderful enough names, like the shortarse feelerfish, zombie worms, and bristlemouth fish, which are more numerous than any other animal with a backbone).

To return to your request for a story, though, let me start by telling you what happened as I carried the rubbish down the long driveway in the warm, wild nor’ west wind one morning not long ago. This actually happened; we can decide later whether to diverge from what happened to what might have happened. But now I see you’re impatient to hear the story, just like I was when I was your age. All right, then.

So, I’d carried the rubbish bag out to the gate, and as I took it the last twenty-five metres to drop it next to the neighbour’s bag, I noticed something old and dead lying in the weeds next to the letterboxes. Magpie, I thought, and on the way back I stopped to look more closely.

The remains of the bird had decayed to nothing more than pale bones and feathers, the quills still stuck in desiccated skin. The form of the body had gone; everything looked a little mixed-up except for a dry wing that had retained most of its shape. But, sitting on the almost-mummified remains, was the magpie’s skull.

Wind and rain and sun and time and insects had cleaned the skull almost perfectly, stripped it of nearly every trace of dried flesh and skin. The lower part of the beak had gone, but the upper part remained, still partly covered with its tough sheath, although even that had dried hard and begun to flake off. I looked at the skull with its beautiful sad lines and curves and the huge hollows where its eyes had once looked out on the world, and I wondered many things. How had it died; what had killed it; how did it come to end its short life? (Magpies don’t live long compared to us.) How had it ended up in those roadside weeds? Most probably, it had been a young bird struck by a car and someone or something had carried it or just tossed it off the road. I hoped it hadn’t been injured and had flapped and dragged itself there to die, but the way of things isn’t always as kind as we wish. Let’s not think about that too much, though, because I see that might upset you. (Good — I’m glad you find the pain of animals difficult.)

I picked up the skull. As I said, it was clean and old, so I wasn’t worried about getting my fingers covered in bacteria and objectionable smells and other pestilence. The skull was so light I could hardly feel it. I guess you could say it felt as light as a feather. (Later, I weighed it and found it weighed just two-and-a-half grams: about as much as a teaspoon of tea leaves. Now you know how much a bird’s skull weighs when the bird that lived there has gone. Isn’t that something?)

I didn’t know why I picked up the skull and took it back to the house and set it down on a sheet of white paper. Maybe I didn’t want to leave it there to get trodden on or blown into the oozing ditch or smashed to bits by a weedeater when someone decided to tidy around the letterboxes. Maybe I wanted to keep something beautiful. Maybe you have some ideas?

Ah, so you think maybe it was just a cool thing? You might be right, and you’ve taught me something, too: I thought kids stopped saying ‘cool’ years ago when saying ‘cool’ became uncool. So kids still use it? Thank you.

Whatever the reason, I did pick it up and take it back with me, and here’s where we need to decide what to do with the story. Shall we stick with the truth, or shall we make something up?

‘Both’, you say? There’s a thought, and I have to hand it to you — you’ve trapped me cleverly into telling you two stories, not just one. But maybe you’re right to do that, because everything has more than one story. Sometimes I think anything has as many stories as you can imagine, and as many true stories, too, if only you had a way of discovering them.

1. Possibly part 1 of a series
1 & 2. Magpie skull, Pohangina Valley, December 2017

Photos and original text © 2017 Pete McGregor

13 September 2017

New life from old things

  A fierce wind was whipping the shrubs around, but only an occasional half-hearted gust swirled into the shelter of Greg's small, glassed-in porch. Each time, the nylon cape he’d fastened around my neck to keep the hair clippings off my clothes floated up, and I had to hold it down. The inconvenience was minor, but the glare from the sun on the white weatherboards dazzled me, forcing me to squint, and my eyes began to hurt. Greg had put on his dark wrap-arounds. He stood in front of me, scissors in hand, not cutting my hair, while he explained how he’d fix the cables on my mountain bike.
   ‘When it’s in a low gear, y’can slip the cover out of its …’
   He paused, not knowing the name for the little nubbin that held the cable sheath in place.
   ‘Then y’can slide the cover along and get some sandpaper and sandpaper the crud ‘n’ shit off it’, he said.  He looked determined that no crud or shit would survive his sandpapering.
   ‘I’ve got some special stuff y’can squirt down it to lubricate it. Y’can’t use oil, ‘cos that makes the inside go all gummy’.
   I thought of the many types of lubricant I’d squirted into the cables over the years and kept quiet, guessing sandpapering and special stuff wouldn’t be enough and the whole set-up would need replacing. I didn’t mind paying for new cables, but Greg liked restoring things, particularly bikes, and buying new parts was a last resort.

   When I’d arrived, he’d been tightening the nuts on the front wheel of a little BMX bike. The spanner slipped off the nut he was tightening and fell on the ground, and he’d left it there while he shook my hand, and then we’d gone out to my car to retrieve my bike.
   ‘Ah, that’s what I like to see’, he’d said when I’d lifted the hatch. ‘A bike that’s seen some use’.
   It had certainly seen that, and even though I’d known Greg wouldn’t worry about seeing a filthy, rust-scaled, beaten-up bike, I felt mildly embarrassed about its ruinous state.
   He asked me what I wanted fixed. I hadn’t thought much about it, other than wanting new brake pads and some work on the chain and gears. I just wanted it safe and running smoothly and had assumed he’d figure out what needed to be done.


   We propped the bike against the wall of the house and got on with the haircut. He’d snip away briefly then stop to yarn about something, then snip some more. I always allowed over an hour for a haircut with Greg and made sure I didn’t have to be anywhere important anytime soon afterwards, just in case the cut took longer than usual. It usually did. The haircut was mostly incidental, though; time yarning with Greg was the real reason I went to him. That, and his aptitude for restoring old things.

   His campervan sat on the small rectangle of front lawn, taking up most of it, and his ancient caravan sat in front of the van, taking up the rest. He told me how they’d been to Raglan recently in the campervan and had got there and back with a hundred additional kilometres of exploring, all for just a hundred dollars’ worth of petrol. He pronounced Raglan as ‘Ragland’. I didn’t know if the pronunciation was deliberate or a Greg joke — ‘Rag-land’ — but I didn’t want to embarrass him if it wasn’t, so I took care to avoid saying ‘Raglan’. If his pronunciation was unintentional, though, he’d have laughed and turned it into a joke anyway.
   He stood with the sun shining on his bald head, with his greying stubble and dark glasses, with an impish half-smile, not cutting my hair, and he told me how he’d been slowly working on the campervan, lining it with plywood and smearing sealant around the windows to stop the leaks. He’d fitted the sink with a gold tap, too, he said, and he pointed at it through the grimy window. It was a standard chrome tap, and I laughed with him.

   ‘Y’know, I’d rather live in that than this house, Pete’, he said then, and he was serious. ‘It was pissing down and I was thinking, yeah, I don’t know about driving all the way back from Ragland in the rain. Not too safe, y’know. So we parked up at a campground. Plugged it in and, y’know, I LOVE the sound of rain on the campervan. Even better than listening to it on the roof of a house’.
   He was remembering the night they’d spent snug and dry with the rain coming down somewhere near Ragland.
   ‘You’re all cosy, and, it’s like you’re in your cocoon’, he said.

   The sun was glaring on the white house and the shrubs were thrashing in the wind, and Greg was somewhere else, behind his dark sunglasses with the rain pelting down on his little campervan in the Ragland night.
   Then he came back and resumed snipping at my hair, gradually tidying up another old thing.

Photo: The bike, in much better nick after Greg had worked on it.

Photos and original text © 2017 Pete McGregor

26 August 2017

Eating weetbix at the speed of light

You’re not sure how it happens, but one day you’re assembling your breakfast — bran flakes, a couple of spoonsful of rolled oats, raisins — and you reach into the giant packet of Weetbix you’re sure you bought just a week or two ago, all seventy-two biscuits, which you’ve been crumbling into your bran flakes and rolled oats and raisins at the rate of just one a day just two or three times a week, and you realise that suddenly, unexpectedly, you’re several layers down in the packet, approaching the halfway mark, and the maths just doesn’t add up.

The only explanation is that you must have bought the packet months ago, not weeks ago, but surely time can’t be passing that quickly? Maybe your breakfasts — your breakfast times, that is — have been too enjoyable. Einstein once explained relativity in relatively simple terms by pointing out that when you’re with a beautiful woman, time flies past, but when you’re sitting on a red-hot cinder, the moment goes on forever [1]. It’s an analogy most of us can relate to, at least in part and adapted to personal preference and experience.

But, had I really been having that much fun during the course of my Weetbix-depleting dawns? If time had speeded up as I sat at the kitchen table, reading what had happened overnight in the world, or — if I’d risen late enough — looking out the window at the violet dawn  and the blackbirds tugging their breakfasts in long, elastic, resisting threads from the soggy pasture, then who had been eating the missing Weetbix? Had another parallel version of me been crumbling Weetbix while I looked out the window and thought of birds and beautiful women?

If I wanted my life and my Weetbix to last longer, would I have to find a red-hot cinder to sit on?

Another thought crossed my mind. If I could eat breakfast faster than the speed of light, time would start to move backwards and, presumably, my Weetbix box would begin to fill up. With sufficient practice, I could eat at the speed of light, in which case time would stand still and I could survive on just one Weetbix until, … well, the end of Time.

None of it made any sense, which is such a common feeling for anyone trying to understand pretty much anything about modern physics that it was a completely unsurprising feeling. Besides, I’ve always been the slowest eater I’ve ever met, and the only way I was ever going to eat at the speed of light was if I existed in a parallel universe. That might have made perfect sense to Richard Feynman, whose theories were instrumental in developing the idea of parallel universes and was probably the only person who could explain them intelligibly [2], but two things meant I was unlikely to be able to get my head around the concept that I might meet myself somewhere, sometime parallel to where I happened to be. First, Feynman was a genius and I’m not. Second, and sadly, Feynman died many years ago [3], so I’d never get the chance to sit down and talk with him and hear him explain incomprehensible concepts comprehensibly — unless, of course, I met him in a parallel universe in which he hadn’t died.

Modern physics isn’t something most of us can pick up easily. For a start, you need to know the maths, and that’s a long and arduous apprenticeship. The effort might be worthwhile, though —advanced maths is, by all accounts, an end in itself, a reward in itself. Bertrand Russell described mathematics as having a ‘supreme beauty’, ‘sublimely pure’ — but he, too, was a genius. A different kind of genius, admittedly, but he shared Feynman’s genius at mathematics, so he was well placed to pass that kind of judgement. I’m not, so I have to rely on belief that he was right, and belief, as any competent scientist will tell you, is dangerous and not to be trusted.

But, if you don’t have the mathematical training and flair, you have to rely on translations from mathematics to everyday language, and only a handful of writers have those twin skills of advanced mathematical competence and great facility with written language. Thank the cosmos that we have at least a few of those — Brian Greene is a great example, as is Stephen Hawking (although some will disagree with that assessment [4]) — but when you’ve finished reading their works and you still have questions, it’s not like you can figure it out for yourself. The analogies those interpreters have to use do a good job of explaining what they’re trying to translate, but here’s the problem: ordinary mortals like you and me can’t confidently extrapolate the analogies. In other words, we can’t know whether our extrapolations are valid. You’d have to ask the translator, and because few of us will ever get the chance to query Greene or Hawking, we’ll never know whether they’d nod and agree or shake their head and say, ‘No, the analogy doesn’t work for that.’

So, for the time being, I’m forced to keep wondering why my Weetbix are disappearing faster than apparently explained by the Laws of Physics, and I guess I’ll just have to enjoy them while they last — while, that is, I have time.

1. I’ve taken liberties with the phrasing of what Einstein said, but because the quotation appears to have been indirect, I’m comfortable with my liberties.
2. OK, I’m taking serious liberties with the history of the Many-Worlds Interpretation, mainly because I don’t understand it, but the main point is that if anyone could comment sensibly on it, that person was probably Feynman.
4. Until Thomas Piketty published ‘Capital in the 21st Century’, Hawking’s ‘A Brief History of Time’ was considered the least-read best-selling book.

I had no idea about what photographs to include (there's a challenge for better photographers than me: make weetbix look interesting), but then I thought, well, birds don't wonder about these things. They just get on with it, and if there's maths to be done, they just do it without a fuss.
1. On the other hand, maybe tui are solving complex abstract mathematical problems when they're singing. Their songs are so astonishingly complex that anything might be possible. And yes, that's its tongue.
2. Sparrow getting on with its day.
3. At Massey University, the waxeyes and other birds have been feasting on the spring nectar.

Photos and original text © 2017 Pete McGregor

26 June 2017

An Indian summer

In November 2016 I flew to India with clear intentions and low expectations. Among the intentions I could list talking to more people and photographing them more, pushing myself harder to do the things that didn’t come easily to me, and — particularly important — doing my utmost not to get crook. The expectations were related and mostly negative: I expected to get crook, and I expected much of the travelling, particularly the inescapable haggling, which I hate, to be hard. I expected to be scammed, hoped it would be minor and infrequent, and intended to accept it with at least a little grace and some compassion for myself for feeling like a fool — which I also expected.

I knew, though, that accomplishing easy things is rarely as satisfying as accomplishing difficult things, although I was pretty sure that the delights of adversity aren’t as awesome as Nietzsche cracked them up to be. If I’d truly believed him, I’d have skipped the bottled water, drunk the parasite soup masquerading as the jug of water on every dhaba table, and spent most of my almost-four months in India clenching my quivering sphincter and desperately searching for the closest toilet.

No thanks. I could think of more enjoyable ways to spend my time in India, and the pursuit of self-improvement through the wilful cultivation of intestinal parasites wasn’t one of them. Besides, self-improvement seemed to me to be, well, selfish or self-obsessed. One way of looking at life is to see it as a choice between two ways of looking at life: the inward-looking, solipsistic search for the self, or the outward-looking, compassionate delight in encountering The Other.
Other people, other things — anything, that is, other than one’s self. Seeking the Other seemed more interesting, less selfish, and potentially more rewarding than searching for my Self.

In any case, I wasn’t going to India to find myself, partly because I wasn’t lost, but mostly because, … well, to tell the truth, I didn’t know clearly why I was going to India: I just had to. I had unfinished business there, although it wasn’t business and had hardly started. I had people I wanted to see; places I wanted to visit. Some of those places I’d failed to get to on my previous trip in 2014, when illness had stymied my plans; others had arrived on the list as I’d thought about what I wanted to do in India this time.

Mostly, though, what I wanted to do was just bum around and live in India for a few months.

I got to many of the new places, and of course they bore little relation to how I’d imagined they’d be. I’d expected that. Imagination’s fine if you’re writing fiction, but it bears little relation to the way a place feels when you get there, even if you’ve had help from the best non-fiction. 

That includes photographs and films, too — they’re seldom any better than imagination, because they’re necessarily so selective in what they show. Life is often humdrum, and the photographer’s temptation is to show instead what’s not humdrum, which therefore turns out to be not a true reflection of life in the place being photographed. Some photographers deliberately resist this temptation, but even those who practise this so-called democratic photography — pioneered by William Eggleston [1]— can’t truly show you what a place feels like simply by documenting what’s in front of the lens. What matters is behind the lens, and I don’t mean the camera.

What photographs do best is not that they show you what to expect, but that they remind you of what a place feels like. They can only do that after you’ve been there, and only the best photographs can do that, and there are far too few of those. 

Writing suffers the same shortcoming — like photos and films, it fails miserably to prepare you for your first meeting with a place. It does better at reminding you. Writing can remind you of a place in two ways: when it’s read, and when it’s written. The first point is obvious enough if the writing’s good enough, but people who don’t write probably never realise the second point, even though it’s at least as true. As I write, I often find myself remembering things I didn’t know I’d forgotten. Try it for yourself: try writing about something that happened when you were a kid. Stick with it until the flow comes, and you’ll see what I mean.

It's harder for photos, though, because they're hopelessly trapped by their requirement to show something — literally, visually — and, most of the time, that turns out to be the wrong thing. Only excellent photographs transcend that constraint. Their power lies in their ability to evoke in us something non-trivial, something more than a simple ‘Wow!’ and, if they do it well, they might just manage to put the viewer on the right wavelength.

And the greatest photographs go even further; their power lies in our inability to pinpoint the feeling they evoke; we know only that what we feel is profound to the point of being overwhelming. Even if you can eventually find a few words for the feeling, that’s partly the point — you struggle to find those right words. Often they’ll be wrong, and all you can do is shrug and say, ‘That’s not what I meant at all.’

If you don’t believe me, go and look at the photographs of the late Stanley Greene, who photographed in places that have become bywords for horror and atrocity: Rwanda, Chechnya, Iraq, and others. Look at this photograph. Words can add nothing to that photograph, but if they could, the best would be from Greene himself. ‘Since the death of her child,’ he wrote, ‘Zelina often stares at something far away, elusive. She says she is already dead herself, if only time would hurry up.’

Sometimes I wonder whether I could have photographed in the sort of situations in which Greene worked, but it doesn’t take me long to accept how lucky I’ve been to have not been given the opportunity. The price he paid is one I doubt I could have borne.

Fortunately, my trip to India was nothing even remotely like Greene’s tours of duty, and my photographs were mostly reminders of the wonders and joys of life rather than its horrors and grief.

Still, as I’d expected, much happened that I didn’t expect. I went to Nepal, forced out of India by the cash crisis that paralysed much of India less than a week after I’d arrived. I survived a good two months without getting crook. I found excellent food — and even beer — in Bundi, where, ten years earlier, the best food I’d eaten had been a slop resembling cabbage stewed in hair oil. I once caught a flight that turned out to be almost on time. The Western Ghats, infamous for their regular and copious rain, turned out to be so dry that no one was seeing any animals in the famous places. And I found Kochi a delight and wished I’d spent more time there.

I returned to New Zealand with a lot of photographs (but not enough), three hundred handwritten pages in three A5 notebooks, and an upper respiratory tract infection. I hadn’t achieved everything I’d intended, but that was always going to be a long shot, and I’d managed what I’d most intended: I’d bummed around India for a few months and lived there.

1. For contemporary examples, look at the excellent work of Peter Black, Maurice Lye, Bill Knight, and gstuartnielsen. Apologies to any of the aforementioned photographers who might dislike the label ‘democratic photography’ or consider it doesn’t fit their work. Like all labels, it’s nebulous and probably inaccurate, but, for all you others, you should look at these photographers’ work anyway.

1. Father and son, Kochi.
2. Tomato wallah, Pahar Ganj, New Delhi.
3. A corner of the corner of the world I call home.

Photos and original text © 2017 Pete McGregor

27 January 2017

Return to India

One of the guide books had warned about making an early start for the border crossing from Mahendranagar to India to avoid spending a night in Banbasa. This was nonsense. The crossing was one of the easiest I’d had on any of my travels, and the only queues I encountered were identical – a Spanish man and a Dutch man just ahead of me at the checkposts. At the Nepalese Immigration office I exchanged almost all my Nepalese rupees for Indian rupees and chatted briefly with a man who turned out to have been a guide at Bardia. The conversation was just warming up when I had to leave, and one of the last things I did was imitate the call of the male tiger we’d heard on the first day in the jungle. The ex-guide smiled and nodded. Perhaps it brought back good memories for him.

At the Indian security checkpoint and again at Indian Immigration, I followed the two foreigners. The slightly dour Indian official asked for the Dutch man’s occupation.
  ‘Entrepreneur,’ he said, then added, ‘freelance.’
I had no idea what that meant, but apparently I had somehow jumped the queue. The official asked my occupation.
  ‘University teacher,’ I said
The man from Spain seemed interested. With his dark olive complexion, black bushy beard, and long black hair in a man-bun, he could easily have passed for someone from the Punjab.
  ‘If you don’t mind my asking,’ he said, ‘in what field?’
  ‘Science communication,’ I said. ‘Teaching students how to organise their ideas and present an argument. How to write a report and work in teams and present a seminar.’
They liked the sound of this, but I was being dismissed. The official had handed my passport back and was waving me towards the door.
  ‘You can go,’ he said.

My helpful little rickshaw driver worked hard, pedalling me over some awful sections of what could hardly be called road. He even picked up another, elderly, passenger partway, thus increasing the workload. The sun beat down, he mopped his face with a cloth, his sparse hair grew damp, but he didn’t relent. At Banbasa bus station I paid him well, and he touched the money to his forehead, then to the front wheel of his rickshaw, three times quickly. The effort had been all his, but the way he acknowledged his vehicle touched me. It was a simple, unaffected act of humility, and I respected him for it.

The Spaniard and the Dutch man arrived soon after. We sat together and chatted over chai. The Dutch man had a few days in Rishikesh before returning to Amsterdam. He was laden with gifts for people back home, he said. He pointed to his huge pack.
  ‘I have another bag stored in Delhi,’ he said.
The Spaniard had only a small, woven backpack and a long time yet in India. Both men wanted to know what had first attracted me to India, and they understood when I said I didn’t know. I remembered Krishna’s comment in Naini Tal, almost exactly ten years ago.
  ‘India called you and you came,’ he’d said.
It still sounded like as good an answer as any, and my new friends understood it. Then the van to Tanakpur arrived and I had to leave. I’d enjoyed their company for a short time and wished I could have spent longer chatting. At one stage we’d been laughing about something and I looked up to see an elderly Indian man sitting nearby, grinning with enjoyment. Humour can so easily be infectious even when it’s not understood.

Fifteen rupees to Tanakpur seemed ridiculously cheap. So too did the 150 rupees from Tanakpur to Champawat: about two hours in a comfortable shared van with a good-humoured, careful, skilful driver in camo pants, a knitted top with the number 10 on the back, and yet another fashionable haircut – almost no back and sides with a spiky, gelled coiff on top.

The two young men next to me had reasonably good English, and we chatted while we waited for the driver to find one last passenger. They, too, wanted to know my occupation. I explained briefly then asked what they did.
  ‘We are software engineers,’ the man next to me said, and they smiled simultaneously.

He was from Chandigarh – a very clean city, he said – the other was from Delhi but was returning to his home about 15 kilometres beyond Champawat. I asked about the ‘cement marker’ commemorating Corbett’s shooting of the Champawat man-eater, the tigress with the greatest number of human kills in recorded history.
  ‘It is at Lohagat,’ he said.

Later, at Champawat, the only person who knew anything about the marker said it was at the Chataar Bridge. He was one of two people running the KMVN Tourist Rest House, and at first he, too, knew nothing about it, but after a night to mull it over, he asked me about the Jim Corbett tiger. Yes, I said, I wanted to see the marker.
  ‘At Chataar,’ he said, and I knew he understood.
He pointed which way I needed to go along the road, but the gesture was indistinct and his English sadly inadequate. I appreciated his sincere attempt to help, but I wondered where he’d got his information from. For all I knew, he’d looked up the same guidebook I had, but one thing was certain: Lohagat and Chataar were two very different places.

No one else at Champawat knew anything else about the marker, least of all the man at the information office, whose only response to my attempts to communicate was to try to give me information about Corbett National Park. This was the usual response when I mentioned Jim Corbett and the man-eating tigress: everyone looked blankly at me and eventually assumed I wanted to see a tiger at Corbett National Park.

The van to Champawat stopped for lunch at a small roadside dhaba, where I ate dahl and chapatis and finished with a small dish of keer. All of it was delicious, and the software engineer from Delhi insisted on paying for my lunch – a small act of kindness that was by no means the only one I was to experience on my journey. The lunch sustained me for the rest of the day, although I did supplement it at Champawat with a couple of cups of chai during an exploratory walk in the afternoon.

The first was at a tiny shop where the proprieter, blind in one eye, explained in rudimentary English how to make chai.
  ‘Milk, sugar, tea, water,’ he said, forgetting to mention the crucial spices.
  ‘Secret recipe,’ I said, and his friend, with better English, laughed enthusiastically.

The other chai was bought for me by the manager of a newly-opening branch of the Canara Bank. He and his two younger friends chatted with me for a long time, but I was in no hurry and was enjoying the conversation even when the communication didn’t quite succeed.

By the time I sat down in my room at the Hotel Shikar in Almora, I was done in. I’d survived the long journey from Champawat, though, and wasn’t completely shattered – probably more than could be said for the elderly Italian man who had shared the journey with me. He’d appeared suddenly at the window of my jeep in Champawat’s main bazaar just after I’d negotiated an still-exorbitant price to get to Lohagat to catch a bus to Almora.

I persuaded the jeep to stop at the Chataar Bridge, which turned out to be on the outskirts of town. If I’d known, I could have walked there. Of the Corbett marker, however, there was no sign. The driver asked some locals at the bridge – at least I think that’s what he was doing – but even they had no idea where it was or even whether such a thing existed. If it does, it’s presumably small, dusty, overgrown, and possibly even broken.

I photographed the only marker I saw, which commemorated the bridge-builders but nothing else; saving people from a gruesome, terrifying death was apparently less important than speeding up the flow of traffic. Corbett had been all but forgotten in Champawat. How many of the people who had forgotten him had ancestors who had been killed by the tigress? What did it take to be remembered?

I got back in the jeep and we left Champawat behind. I wouldn’t forget it, but my memories would be for reasons more than the attempt to find Corbett. In just one short overnight stay I’d grown to like it a lot.

In the morning I’d walked to the main bazaar as it opened. I was looking for something for breakfast. A group of men in a dhaba called out to me, and I grinned and rubbed my hands together to indicate the cold. They beckoned and pointed to the wood-fired oven, inviting me to warm my hands. One man was deep-frying red chillies in a huge pot over a gas ring.
   ‘Dahl fry,’ another man said.
I asked if I could get aloo paratha.
  ‘No aloo paratha,’ he said.
Then another man pointed to the dhaba next door and said, ‘Omelette.’
The man with the best English added, ‘Bun omelette.’
He accompanied me next door and made sure I got the order I wanted.
  ‘Chilli?’ he said.
  ‘No chilli. Danyavad.’

I was noticing the same thing about Champawat that I’d noticed everywhere: initially strange, foreign, and a little daunting, the town had begun to feel welcoming and friendly after just a couple of walks along the street. As I had in Mahendranagar, I began to feel looked after, that people had quickly recognised me – not surprising, since I blended in like soot on a snowfield – and were keen I should get a good impression of their town.

It was certainly working, and I felt tempted to stay another night. I wanted to return to Champawat, but I wanted to move on, too.

At Lohagat, a helpful young woman with good English found us a bus that would connect with the bus to Almora. She checked with the driver; the bus would leave at ten, she said. I thanked her and told her how this was my second time in Uttarakhand and how it felt good to be back.

Antonio and I settled down in the bus, which gradually filled with passengers. The process resembled staff turnover at a bad place of employment: some people boarded; some decided to leave, for reasons unclear. Sometimes, those who left returned. They might have gone to eat something, or smoke a beedi, or chat with friends, or find somewhere – anywhere would do, apparently – to pee.

Not all returned, though. One man in a white, knitted, cricketer’s vest and dull orange beanie loaded two fertiliser sacks half full of something onto the bus, along with a cloth bag of other belongings. His resemblance to Captain Haddock was so unnerving I began to wonder whether I was hallucinating. He stayed on board for a while, got off, returned, then, not long before the bus left, unloaded his three bags and disappeared for good.

An ancient woman got on and sat nearby. She had thick-lensed glasses and a peculiar knitted cap with a peaked crown and a long tail like a mullet. I greeted her and she responded with a beautiful, almost-toothless smile and much head-nodding, with her hands together in the namaste greeting. Her age hadn’t dulled her wit, though. She bantered with the other passengers; she had plenty to say, none of comprehensible to me but obviously enjoyed by the others.

Ten o’clock came and went. As I’d expected, nothing happened. Some time later, Antonio looked across at me and opened his hands in a question. I gave him the non-committal head-wobble of resignation, a suggestion that this was usual when travelling on buses in India. The bus finally left at eleven in a flurry of urgency. The conductor got on, kicked me out of his seat, which I’d unknowingly been occupying, and the driver leaped into his seat, started the engine, and gave the gears a good grinding. The brakes screamed like the pig I’d seen slaughtered in Mahendranagar, and, because the entire journey followed steep, hilly, winding roads, that amounted to an awful lot of screaming. My main concern, though, and the one for which I had the most reason to be grateful, was that they continued to work.

My enforced seat change left me squeezed onto a seat beside a small, elderly man with an impressive white moustache and designer stubble that I suspected was, like mine, undesigned. Antonio, squashed against the window on the other side of the small man, sat with his big bag under his feet and hugged his smaller bag on his lap. He appeared to be making hard work of the travelling. He’d clasp his forehead with his hand, close his eyes for a while, then wipe his face with his hand and sigh and hug his bag tighter.

His little point-and-shoot camera had stopped working. He fiddled with it several times and later showed me how it wouldn’t focus. I looked through the menu, wondering whether he’d inadvertently changed a crucial setting, but could find nothing. The trip must have been turning into a nightmare for him, but he hadn’t lost his enthusiasm for visiting the very interesting temples. He kept mentioning something about an ‘interesting dynasty’ in the region, but his English frustrated him. Sometimes he’d give up partway through saying something.
  ‘I don’t speak English,’ he’d say, in good, clear English, and he’d shrug in frustration.

His English was at least adequate, though, and far better than my Italian. I didn’t know any Italian  except ‘bienvenido’ and ‘ciao’ and wasn’t even confident using those. Antonio’s main difficulty wasn’t speaking, though: it was understanding what I was saying, even when I tried to keep it simple and slow.

He was going to Rudraprayag and Josimath, and to Badrinath if it was open. I said it was closed; one of the Champawat bank manager’s friends was from Badrinath and had told me it had already closed because of heavy snow.

Antonio’s itinerary startled me. I hadn’t expected to see any foreigners in Champawat, nor had I expected any foreigner other than someone interested in Corbett to visit Rudraprayag. He was on some kind of possibly spiritual, possibly academic, journey: a pilgrimage perhaps. But when I asked whether he was studying the hindu religion, his answers were non-committal, and all I understood was that he was interested in the temples and the dynasties, whatever they were.

I wondered whether I, too, was on some kind of pilgrimage, but I felt too embarrassed to explain that the only things I wanted to see in particular, apart from birds and other wildlife, were the places where Jim Corbett had hunted and killed famous man-eating tigers and leopards. I doubted I could have explained my motivations to Antonio, and even if I could have, the contrast between a pilgrimage focused on religion and one focused, if at all, on man-eaters, seemed too great to make sense. We each had our goals, his far more focused than mine, and I left it at that.

The bus stopped for lunch, and I ate with the driver and a couple of other men, mopping up dahl and aloo gobi with chapatis until I’d eaten my fill. The driver seemed surprised when I turned down the rice. I assured him as best I could that the dahl and chapatis  had been good, and this satisfied him. I think he liked the way I’d joined in and eaten with them.

Antonio asked if I’d enjoyed the food.
  ‘Yes,’ I said, ‘it was very good. Very filling.’
  ‘For me, is impossible,’ he said. ‘The Indian food, ...’
He gave an indeterminate gesture.
  ‘Too spicy?’
But he didn’t explain any further, and I wondered what he ate if he couldn’t eat the local food. That evening in the hotel restaurant he had soup and toast and a green salad. I didn’t see the salad, but my heart sank when I heard him order it, and I hoped he’d get away with it. His difficulties were numerous enough without being compounded by illness.

The old man who had been sitting between Antonio and me had left the bus. At one point he’d heard me confirm to the driver that we wanted to go to Almora, and he gestured for me to stay seated. Then he opened his left hand and sketched an imaginary road map on the palm: a clear intersection. I gathered he was indicating the place we should change buses. He had not a word of English.

His empty seat didn’t last long. Soon after he left, a tiny, age-wizened woman boarded the bus. I reached down and lifted her small, heavy bag of lentils into the bus, and she climbed the steps slowly. I shifted across next to Antonio and the little woman slumped into the seat I’d vacated. For such a tiny person, she occupied an astonishing amount of space.

When I got off the bus for lunch, I greeted her with a namaste, hands together. This delighted her. She took a shine to me, and when I got back on the bus, she patted the seat beside her. I did as I was told, and we had a short conversation, both of us unable to understand a word of the other’s language. Possibly ‘Almora’. She ordered a young guy to buy her a small packet of Bhujia mix, and after she’d eventually opened it she offered me some. I felt a great affection for her and didn’t mind when she began farting, silently and appallingly.

We changed to a local bus at the fork the elderly man had drawn on his hand. This bus, considerably smaller, had no luggage racks, but I stowed my duffel at the front, where it eventually kept company with numerous other large loads, most in once-white, woven plastic fertiliser bags. Antonio took the seat behind me and slumped forward, putting his forehead on his forearm which he’d rested on the back of my seat. He groaned. I looked at him and then at a woman looking at him, also obviously concerned.
  ‘Are you OK?’ I asked him.
He lifted his head, searched for the words, and said something about the wind from the window having affected him. I never did find out what was afflicting him, but he survived the journey and seemed to have recovered when I saw him in the Shikar restaurant in the evening.

The first half of this final leg of the journey felt interminable. If we’d averaged twenty kilometres an hour we’d have been doing well, but I doubted we came anywhere near that. The intervals between stops – to pick up or set down passengers, to deliver mail, to buy vegetables, and sometimes just so the driver could chat with friends – might have averaged five minutes. I kept wondering about Antonio’s condition, and I’d also become worried about the damage the cramped and uncomfortable ride was doing to my own bad back.

The driver, an older man with stubble and – apparently – a hard-case humour, had a single long dreadlock coiled into a tight, neat man-bun. He was trendier, in an unassuming way, than I would ever be. He knew everyone and the journey was, for him at least and some of his passengers, as much a social event as a way of travelling between places. Perhaps in that respect it bore a slight resemblance to my own travels.

We got to Almora in the end, of course. You always do, but whether I was stronger as a result, as the common misunderstanding of Nietzsche’s famous statement would have it, remained doubtful. My back was certainly worse, not better, and I felt no inclination to get into a shared jeep to Kausani the following morning.

A terrible headache woke me around 4.30 a.m. I tried to ignore it but eventually had to get up and find my last pack of ibuprofen, which subdued but didn’t kill it. I took another two later in the morning and, conscious I had only three doses left, bought more from a small pharmacy in one of the alleys. They were 400 mg tablets: the standard dosage in New Zealand. I bought two blister-packs of 15 each, the equivalent of three 20-tablet packs in New Zealand, for 23 rupees: less than fifty New Zealand cents. In New Zealand, the equivalent amount of generic ibuprofen would have cost twelve dollars.

I took one, and the headache disappeared and stayed away. Nevertheless, I took it easy for the rest of the day, writing diligently, making forays into town, and striking up acquaintanceships. Towards evening, I pushed myself to take the camera out. The response was good, and although I couldn’t sustain the effort, I came away with several good photographs.

On the first foray I bought a bottle of water and had one of my two 10-rupee notes
rejected because it was torn. I’d forgotten to check my change somewhere, and someone had slipped the torn tenner in. I didn’t mind – it was only about twenty cents – but resolved to be more careful in future.

The owner of the shop was 29 years old and had been called back to Almora by his father to run the shop after his older brother had moved on. His father had told him it was his duty to look after the shop, but he stopped short of saying he was pleased to oblige. His English was excellent although a little hard to understand because of his strong accent. He also spoke fast, presumably because he wanted to convey his entire life story in about ten minutes, but he was likeable and welcoming. His shop looked clean and neat, with several good tables, and I thought it might be a good place sit and write, but I baulked when he told me how he’d talked for a couple of hours recently with a foreign couple who’d sat over there – he gestured towards the tables.

I carried on along Mall Road and quickly found myself outside the main shopping area. I was about to turn back when I saw a small dhaba that looked as if it sold chai. I ordered some and took a seat in a comfortable, broken office chair at the back of the shop, next to a woman cradling a small child. The baby stared at me, its huge eyes even wider than usual. I smiled and gave it a little wave and then the namaste greeting, hands together, with a little bow. The baby was unmoved, but the mother gave me a shy smile.

The wallah’s name was Govind. I returned in the afternoon for more chai and saw him making an aloo paratha, so I ordered one too. He gave me the one he was cooking, which made me slightly embarrassed I might have jumped the queue, but no one appeared to mind. I surprised myself by enjoying a definite chilli spiciness to the paratha and wondered whether, perhaps, I was gradually becoming used to India.

I’d decided to leave Kausani until later and go to Naini Tal first. A little thrill ran through me. I was returning to one of the significant  places from my first trip, ten years ago: the place  where giardia had laid me low; where I’d met Krishna and drunk whisky with him and his brother and later climbed my hotel’s fence around midnight so I could get back to my room; where I’d played cat-and-mouse with the female snow leopard alone at the top of the zoo late in the afternoon when everyone else had gone. Maybe I was, after all, on a strange kind of pilgrimage, following my own footsteps to places that had changed my life, or at least made it what it was.

There’s always a risk when returning to a significant place, and I tried to keep my expectations low. Naini Tal would have changed; it wouldn’t be the same place I’d visited a decade ago, and, in particular, I knew the snow leopard had gone. I didn’t want to know what had happened to her, but I hoped she’d had at least some quality of life, and I hoped her game with me had contributed in a small way to that. I also knew I had changed, as we all do, and I didn’t know how I’d react to Naini Tal because I didn’t know how I’d changed. All I knew was I hoped it was for the better.

I shared a taxi to Bhowali and a jeep to Naini Tal, and when I got there I found the hotel where I’d intended staying was full.
  ‘Sorry, sir,’ the receptionist said. ‘All our rooms are taken. We have a group. One hundred and eighty children.’
This was no doubt great for the hotel, but it was a nuisance for me, although sharing a hotel with a hundred and eighty children didn’t sound appealing either. I limped back down the hill, trying not to jar my bad back. A man asked if I was looking for a hotel.
  ‘What’s your budget?’ he said.
He could offer me a room for 700 rupees. That was better than I’d been expecting in Naini Tal for anything more habitable than an orc pit, and I wondered about the catch.
  ‘With a bathroom?’
  ‘Of course.’
  “Hot water?’
  ‘Yes, hot water. Of course.’
I said I’d look at it. It turned out to be a top storey room at the Hotel Lake View, and it did indeed have a lake view. It had hot water from 7 until ten in the morning, with a proper shower head, not just a bucket and cup. It did smell slightly mouldy, and everything had that run-down air typical of Indian hotel rooms in the sub-thousand rupees range, but it was good enough and I liked the view.

Although worn out from an early start and a bad back, I walked the length of the Mall to the Mallital end of town. Cyberia’s sign still hung where I remembered it, but the Internet Cafe section, where a gentle waiter had come to recognise and look after me, had gone. Only a narrow, windowless corridor full of aging PCs and mould remained. A link to the past had been broken; a ghost laid to rest.

Machan still perched above the Mall, too. I didn’t go in. I’d eaten there with Krishna and his brother and photographed them there while we waited for our food. I wondered what had become of them and whether Krishna’s name really was Krishna. He was a character: one of those people who come into your life at just the right time, briefly, then vanish as if some cosmic game-player had decided to ignore the rules and had thrown in something no reasonable person would accept – a Deus ex machina, I suppose.

I stayed three nights at Naini Tal and liked it more than I’d expected, although I couldn’t work out why. It was full of tourists – all Indian except for one or two obvious foreigners – and geared up for profiting from them. On the second day I visited Sattal for the birds, which eventually began to show themselves shortly before I needed to work out how to get back to Naini Tal.

During the two full days I spent at Naini Tal, I visited the zoo three times. The first time I just wanted to see what was there and what had changed, the second time with some specific photographic goals in mind, and the final time to go at a different time of day when the light would be coming from a different angle.

On each visit, the zoo was awash with visitors, and of all the attractions – the tiger, the bears, the leopards, the red pandas and so on – number one appeared to be me. I lost count of the number of times someone approached me to ask the usual questions – Which country? What is your name? Are you alone? – and sometimes whether I was a professional photographer. Either initially or eventually, I’d be asked for a photograph: either a selfie with me or for me to photograph them. I was happy to oblige and did my best to look as if I was enjoying the event, which was no trouble at all because I was.

I caught a shared jeep back to Bhowali and shared a taxi back to Almora. The driver drove like a maniac and nearly killed us.

We’d been following close behind a truck and a small van. The truck had slowed and stopped; the van did likewise. Our driver, though, had decided to peer at something on the side of the road, and before I could even gasp we were careening headlong into the back of the van.

How he avoided rear-ending it remains a mystery. He braked hard and veered – and this took the little Suzuki straight into the path of an oncoming jeep. Only good luck and  more attentive driver in the jeep saved us. No one got hit; the only damage was to our trust in the driver, who responded by driving even faster, perhaps to prove how excellent a driver he really was. Mostly I’m impressed with the skill and care of the professional drivers, who can judge accurately whether a manoeuvre is safe or not. Not this guy, though – in addition to the near miss, he overtook on a blind corner where an oncoming vehicle would have been impossible to avoid.

I stayed one night at Almora – just long enough to find the people I’d photographed and give them the prints I’d had done in Naini Tal – and caught a shared jeep to Kausani. The ride took a couple of hours and I never ended up squashed into my seat, but sitting sideways in the back is never comfortable. Still, I survived better than the two women in the front and second-row window seats. The driver kept those windows open so the women could lean out and vomit; one, leaning out and retching for several minutes, eventually slumped back into her seat, tears streaming down her cheeks. I thought of the SeaLegs in my bag, but even if I could have persuaded her to take one, it would have been useless, because by that time we were approaching Kausani.

When I got out of the jeep, a man neatly attired in grey slacks and a cricketer’s vest over a business shirt approached me.
  ‘Excuse me, sir,’ he said in impeccable English, ‘but I wonder if you are wanting accommodation?’
It was a beautiful example of educated Indian English: polite, clear, with a slight touch of formality, and not quite how someone in, say, New Zealand, would say it. He looked like a slightly older version of my memory of the manager of the Hotel Uttarakhand, which is exactly who he turned out to be.
  ‘Hotel Uttarakhand?’ I said, and he smiled.
  ‘I work there,’ he said. ‘Please, come with me.’

He picked up the larger of my two bags and led me up the steps to the hotel. I told him I had to be careful with my budget because of the cash problem. He nodded and asked if I’d like a room with a balcony, and showed me one at the end of the upper storey. It was beautiful and I wanted it desperately but didn’t know if I could afford it.
  ‘Usually it is 1850,’ he said, and I felt a twinge of dismay, ‘ but for you ...’ he hesitated briefly, ‘... one thousand.’
I accepted instantly. I’d intended staying only one night, but with a room like that and a spectacular view of the Himalaya, ..., well, I knew I needed a full day. Two nights, I decided.

While I completed the registration – always a lengthy process – someone made a pot of coffee for me. I sat in the sun, drinking the coffee and drinking in the sight of Nanda Devi and Trisul and the other mountains in the adjacent Himalaya. Even in the bluish late morning light they looked magnificent.

Later I walked along the road, enjoying the warmth, enjoying the birds, and enjoying time with a family who called me over to drink chai with them. The son brought out a plate of biscuits and something that looked like fudge. Sweet, dark, and a little chewy, it had a slight caramel flavour. I asked one of the men what it was called. He conferred with the woman.
  ‘Chocolate,’ he said. ‘We call it chocolate.’
It wasn’t like the chocolate I knew, but it was delicious.

Late in the afternoon, I sat on my balcony watching shadows creep up the pine-forested hillsides. The haze in the huge basin between Kausani and the Himalaya turned reddish-brown and looked like smog, and I hoped it wasn’t. Two doves flew out from the forest opposite the hotel and over that basin, through the smog/haze, through that vast space, towards the mountains. Trisul had just begun to lose its blue cast and take on a warmer glow, and the freedom of those two birds, the freedom of flight, filled me with a longing for something I could never have – an imagined freedom only.

I took a long time to realise I had another kind of freedom, one the doves could never have. I had the freedom to imagine.

1. I'm way behind on sharing this journey, so I'll have to start skipping bits. If you want a visual impression of where I'm currently travelling, follow me on Instagram.

1. A common sight in India: roasting groundnuts on the street. The smell is delicious.
2. The driver for the Tanakpur-Champawat route. 
3. He cooked a good bun-omelette.
4. Champawat: the modern town.
5. Porters at Almora
6. The manager of the Hotel Uttarakhand
7. English was a problem when trying to communicate with this family, but the warmth of their welcome wasn't.
8. One of the staff at the Hotel Uttarakhand. I liked his quiet dignity.

Photos and original text © 2017 Pete McGregor