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

11 December 2019

Hunting the griffon (India)

Thursday 21 November 2019

The name evokes something mythical, something to inspire awe and perhaps fear: griffon. The griffon we were seeking, however, was far from mythical, although neither Sally nor I doubted its ability to inspire awe. It was her idea to go looking for them, and she had a good idea where to look. The griffon she wanted me to see was the Himalayan griffon, the largest bird in the Himalayas, slightly bigger even than the huge lammergeier.
She and Prem co-opted one of Prem’s friends, Dina, to drive us towards the Rohtang Pass, to a point where she’d previously seen huge vultures circling; those birds, she felt sure, must have been griffons. Even if we didn’t achieve the ultimate goal of seeing the griffon, we’d surely see other birds — enough to make a day’s excursion worthwhile. Besides, any day in the mountains is a good day.

Dina picked us up in his Bolero (a cross between a jeep and a ute) and drove at high speed up the steep, winding, pot-holed road, dodging walkers and dogs, squeezing past oncoming vehicles, sometimes overtaking cars that were only speeding, and all the while he talked and laughed with Prem with an energy that matched his driving. As far as I knew, he had no English, or maybe about as much as I had Hindi, but despite that, and despite what sane people might consider insane driving, I warmed to him immediately. Like Prem, he was impossible not to like.

I saw white streaks on cliffs on the far side of the narrow valley in the area where Sally had seen vultures circling. This was promising. Less promising was the point where we stopped, which turned out to be a popular lookout partway up the endlessly switch-backing road to the Pass. The place was chaos: a bedlam of cars and other vehicles parked or trying to park on the roadside. The jam must have stretched for a kilometre, possibly more. Dina parked with one wheel almost off the road (I exited the car carefully on the other side), and after Prem, Sally, and I had set off up the mountainside, he shifted it to a more satisfactory spot before catching up with us. We tried an initial bird observation spot but decided it was too populated and noisy, so we moved further on. The sound of the crowd began to fade, and immediately we began to see birds — crows, of course, but also spot-winged tits. We moved further around the mountainside and dropped down to a grassy four-wheel drive track, where Prem and Dina set about preparing a fire.
But before they’d even lit it, Prem called out.
‘Pete!’ he said, pointing, and there, soaring towards us, was a huge and spectacular bird. It passed behind a tall cedar, emerged, circled, and cruised off across the valley. I managed a few underexposed and soft photographs, but they were good enough to confirm the identification. Himalayan griffon. Then, shortly afterwards, it was Sally’s turn to call out. I looked up and saw her pointing at another large vulture, but one noticeably different. By then I had the camera set up better, but I had less time to photograph and the angles were less satisfactory. Nevertheless, this was unquestionably a lammergeier. Within a few minutes, Sally’s goal of helping me see the griffon had not only been met but exceeded.

We ate lunch and relaxed by the fire. I photographed Himalayan woodpeckers — record shots. Sally came back from a short foray to report a dead horse further along the track, and when I checked it out, I found large feathers scattered around the corpse, which was now little more than dry skin shrivelled over a skeleton. Very large feathers. Feathers so large they could only have been from one of those two huge vultures.

Later in the afternoon we walked back along the track to Dina’s vehicle, and he drove us down to the riverbed. He and Prem built another fire in a small cave — little more than an overhang at the base of a cliff, but enough to provide some shelter from the bitter wind — and Sally heated the quiche and biryani and rajma she’d prepared. I was hungry by then and ate plenty and tried a tiny amount of Black Bow whisky and listened to Prem and Dina singing local songs. We talked, firelight flickering on the faces of my friends, while the light faded. Just before night closed in completely, I looked up at the sky and saw a small shape, silhouetted, flitting around above us. To see a little bat beginning its nightly hunt as our day drew to a close seemed as perfect as I could have wished for.

Saturday 23 November 2019

A day of rain continued throughout the night — steady, unrelenting, unvarying rain — and this morning, when I draw back the curtains, I see snow low on the mountainsides, coating the ground well below the timberline. Pale blue smoke billows from the chimney of a nearby house and flows down the valley; two crows fly past, going up the valley, and the pooled water on the flat concrete roof of the house next door dances with raindrops. Pigeons fly in to land on the verandah, displacing a myna, which flies across to the concrete roof and hunches, apparently disgruntled, in the rain. Mynas can look after themselves, though — too well, unfortunately, in places where they’ve been introduced, and they now sit near the top of the list of the world’s worst invasive species. This one will quickly find shelter elsewhere. It flies off, and I think about what it means to say a species is invasive. That’s straightforward enough, though, even if the definition undoubtedly provides much for ecologists and others to argue about. I’m more interested in what it means to say a species is ‘worst’. That’s a value judgement, and although I don’t agree with the arguments of the self-titled ‘compassionate conservationists’, whose manifesto, it seems to me, relies too much on cherry-picked examples to argue that conventional conservation doesn’t work and which would abandon far too many unique species to functional or actual extinction, I do agree with them that too often conventional conservation programmes demonise invasive species and refuse to accept they have any positive characteristics.
I like mynas. I admire their intelligence, their adaptability, and their appearance. Nevertheless, if I could remove mynas from northern New Zealand, I would. An even clearer example: stoats. I love them and always get a thrill of delight when I see one, but that’s always tempered with concern about the devastating effects even a single stoat can have on populations of native birds that, unlike stoats, are found nowhere else in the world.

New Zealand’s lucky, though. We could have suffered far worse if the efforts to introduce other animals had succeeded. Several serious attempts were made to introduce mongooses to control rabbits; all failed, but if they’d succeeded, we’d unquestionably have lost far more species of birds and invertebrates. And thinking of mongooses brings me back to India rather than remembering the stoats on the No. 1 Line track.

The russet sparrows arrive. How do they stay so dry in this unrelenting rain?

I brew Himalayan green tea with rose petals and drink it as I write to the sound of rain and birds and vehicles passing. How long will this weather last? Prem’s been planning an excursion to look for Himalayan monal, a bird I’d love to see (and, with luck, photograph), but searching for monal in the rain would be both miserable and futile — in this weather, Prem says, they hide away. Sensible birds.
Eventually the rain stops, and with no sign of the sleepers I pack and go for a walk up the road. Near a parked car on a flat area littered with broken glass, bottles, indeterminate rags, and other rubbish, a small flock of birds gleans — russet sparrows and one of the tits, which I can’t see well enough to identify or photograph. I have the wrong lens on, of course. Later, in an apple tree near the same spot, I photograph rock buntings. Slowly, I’m beginning to learn the birds, and this gives the journey a focus that makes it feel more intentional, less like aimless drifting from place to place. I don’t know why this should be important, and perhaps it isn’t.
I stop at the dhaba where Sally had bought vegetables and order an aloo paratha and chai. It feels good to be independent and alone in a little Indian restaurant, eating paratha, drinking a good-sized cup of chai, and scribbling in the notebook as I watch the people and traffic pass by. A few people notice me, and when I nod and smile in acknowledgement they respond with the head wobble and sometimes a smile. That, too, feels good.

In the afternoon I finally manage to make myself useful, breaking a large bundle of sticks into tiny pieces for kindling. Prem cooks an excellent dish of rice, veges, and apple; it has just the right level of spiciness and the apple’s a refreshing accent. This could be a very late lunch or an early dinner — it doesn’t matter. Would I like a glass of beer? Sally asks, but I opt instead for the alternative: the second flush Assam tea that arrived today, just two days after Sally ordered it online. Thursday’s drinking was enough for me, even though I tried to take care, and last night I relented and enjoyed a small amount of beer when Prem’s cousin visited; today, even though beer would have been perfect with Prem’s dish, I want a night off.

Blue sky appears towards evening, with big, orange-suffused cumulus at the head of the valley. Crows cross the valley, silhouetted against the nascent thunderheads. I love the way the tips of their wings bend upwards on that strong downbeat, as if they’re gently stroking the sky.

Sunday 24 November 2019

Too much to record; the day too full to do justice to. Let’s just say we went looking for Himalayan monal and saw griffons, Koklass pheasants, and a tree creeper. We heard a monal calling; Prem identified the call for us. He knows these mountains and what lives here — this is home for him. He led us through shallow, slippery snow wearing socks and flip-flops. I should have felt weak and soft but was pleased to be able to keep up and feel at home. I think I’ll always be pulled between the mountains and the sea. Maybe that’s what happens when you grow up in New Zealand.

Monday 25 November 2019

Around mid-afternoon I walked the back road towards Manali. Sally walked with me part of the way, just far enough to show me where the road went. I recognised the initial section as the part we’d walked to meet Prem on the day I arrived at Shanag, and from there the route finding was straight forward, with only a couple of junctions, where choosing the right branch was straightforward. I’d only just left Sally when I saw something moving on the trunk of an apple tree. A tree creeper! Stupidly, I’d packed my camera in the daypack, and I tried to watch the bird while retrieving it but lost sight of it when it flew to another grove of trees. I never saw it again. They’re strange, beautiful birds, and I hope I get another chance to photograph one. I have one poor but recognisable photograph from yesterday’s walk, a few minutes after seeing the Koklass pheasants, but that’s nothing more than a record shot.
At the bridge over the stream, though, I immediately saw a Little forktail. It flew off as I raised the camera, and I never saw that bird again either, but as I looked upstream, I saw another, different bird. Even from a distance, the distinct coloration and white patch on the head meant I knew I was looking at a Whitecapped water redstart, and I managed some fairly distant but good photographs. The walk was turning out well.

Further on, I photographed a white-bellied treepie and one of several yellow-billed blue magpies feeding on red berries from a tangled bush. A few cars bounced and joggled past on the lumpy road, and occasionally I’d pass small groups of people tending orchards, cutting grass, hanging out around houses, or attempting to split enormous, tough logs with blunt axes that bounced off the wood and left little impression. Mostly, though, the road remained quiet and peaceful.

I’d worked out a turn-around time so I wouldn’t end up walking in the dark. Turning back on a road I’m walking for the first time often deflates me — only slightly, but detectably nevertheless. The complete novelty of the road has gone, and with it the possibility of discovering something new and wonderful; instead I’m faced with a long trudge over ground I’ve just covered. But that doesn’t mean all hope of enjoyment has vanished. Far from it: new birds, or the same birds showing themselves more clearly, might appear; the view differs and might reveal things I’ve walked past; towards evening the light for photographing might have improved; encounters with people — simple conversations or even a smile — can be a delight. For example, on the way back I talked with a middle-aged man who had just crossed the road with a huge load of grass in two yellow sacks on his back.
I saw him stop and look back, evidently curious. He walked slowly, as if wanting me to catch up, and just before I did, he stepped down off the road onto a path leading to a house a short distance away.
‘Namaste,’ I said.
He looked up and nodded. He looked exhausted and broke off a thin twig of a dry weed with which to pick his teeth.
‘Where you come from?’ he said.
‘Shanag.’ I pointed up the valley at the village, although he must have known where Shanag was. He nodded.
‘Where you from?’ he said.
I told him New Zealand, and he nodded again and said, slowly, ‘Achaar’ — good.
He wanted to know how much I was paying to stay in Shanag.
‘Your room, how much you pay?’
I told him I was staying with a friend so wasn’t paying for a room. He gave his usual nod, and I couldn’t tell whether he was disappointed at the lack of information about how much money people in Shanag were earning from tourists or simply resigned to the uselessness of foreigners. I think he may have welcomed the novelty of talking with me and the chance to rest before the final plod back to the house. Perhaps he was wondering whether offering homestays to tourists would be an easier, more lucrative way of life than daily hard physical labour.

At the bridge I looked for the Little forktail and the Whitecapped water redstart. Neither showed itself, but I saw another small bird of a different type perched on a large boulder. Even from a distance I knew I was looking at a female Plumbeous water redstart. I photographed and climbed down to the river bed where I could manage some slightly closer photographs, but at the point where I’d have been in ideal range, the little bird dropped down behind another large boulder and vanished. I thought I was in a position where I’d be able to see it fly off, but it never reappeared, and I began to realise that the birds inhabiting these boulder-strewn streams were probably adept at discrete escapes.

I carried on, making it back to the dhaba near Sally’s apartment well before dark. I stopped for chai, and the women greeted me with smiles. The young woman who took my order came out with the chai on a tray and placed the mug carefully in front of me.
‘Danyavad,’ I said — thank you.
She looked directly at me and smiled beautifully.
‘Welcome,’ she said.

1. A side valley in the headwaters of the Solang Valley, Himachal Pradesh, on the day of our search for the monal.
2. Dina (see the previous post for a photo of Prem).
3. Lammergeier
4. Common myna at Shanag, near Manali.
5. Koklass pheasant (female), Solang Valley, Himachal Pradesh.
6. Mountains near Solang, Himachal Pradesh, the evening of our big walk in search of the monal.

Photos and original text © 2019 Pete McGregor

01 December 2019

Life as an animal (India)

These posts will be thrown together quickly — I don't want to spend my time in India agonising over them. However, I hope they'll give you some idea of what it's like here and will reassure you that I'm still alive and well 🙂

Sunday 17 November 2019

At the Madan Café I sipped strong milk coffee and unashamedly ate a honey pancake. The clientele were mostly as delightfully dissipated as I remembered, although this time they were mostly Indian with the better part of a week’s grey-and-white stubble. The one exception was a thin and ragged man in baggy shorts and an old T-shirt; he had a pale, white, smoker’s complexion and hair like Gollum and he intrigued me instantly. But, before I could think of something to open a conversation, an old woman came quietly up and held out her hand. I suspended my cynicism and caution and placed thirty rupees in her grime-blackened hand, thinking it wasn’t for me to decide whether she was a worthy recipient of charity. You just do it and do your best not to feel righteous.
After she’d shuffled off, the toothless bidi-smoker sitting opposite me at the table and watching the traffic turned to me and said something uninterpretable even if I’d known Hindi. He waved his hands in a similarly uninterpretable gesture, and I couldn’t work out if he liked what I’d done or was cautioning me against doing it again. He was clearly not the full quid but seemed to fulfill some kind of assistant staffing role. He kept turning to me and muttering something and gesturing, and I wondered whether he wanted something to eat. I offered him the remaining third of my pancake — I’d enjoyed it but didn’t need the whole thing — but he didn’t want it.

The man with the Gollum hair had heard me talking cricket with the young shopkeeper from next door and struck up a conversation, first about cricket, then about sport in general. Clive was from England but had spent the last eleven years living in Asia, mostly in India and Nepal. He’d broken his hip, and because Nepal’s public health system didn’t have the facilities to fix it and he didn’t have travel insurance, he’d had to spend eight weeks lying on his back in bed while the broken bone healed itself. His thigh wasted away and the tendons and ligaments around his knee shortened and tightened, and when he walked off down the street later, I saw he could hardly move that leg. To call his gait a limp was a gross understatement. He appeared to enjoy our conversation, or at least to have someone to listen to his theories about sport. I tried to steer him onto other subjects related to travelling and life, but he wanted to talk cricket and rugby and tennis.
   ‘You’re the joint holders of the cricket world cup,’ he insisted. Even an Englishman could see New Zealand had been dealt an injustice.
I liked him and wanted to photograph him but couldn’t bring myself to ask. Perhaps if I’d explained that I found his stories interesting he might have agreed, but I didn’t want him to think I was photographing him because he looked outrageously derelict, the way some people photograph homeless people. If I’d been a journalist tasked with investigating and documenting the lives and stories of people like Clive, I might have had a justification, but I wasn’t and I didn’t.


Along the back alley this morning, two dogs lay half asleep on a bench in front of a doorway. Below them in the filth and rubbish lay the emaciated dead body of a ginger kitten, its head arched back. I couldn’t tell if the dogs had killed it or carried it there, or whether it had died of starvation or disease or both, but the sight broke my heart. Whatever finally ended its life might have been merciful, but part of my distress was seeing it lying there, ignored, its suffering not afforded the least respect. When I walked back along the alley in the evening after dark, the small, dried body still lay there.


As I walked back from Connaught Place to Pahar Ganj, I saw a young man walking a large animal on a leash. The animal padded along slowly, and although I assumed it must have been a dog, from behind it looked peculiar, almost lion-like. As I drew closer, the animal turned its massive head, and I saw it was a bloodhound — but a bloodhound in terrible condition. The skin had shrunken over the animal’s hips; the body was hollowed out as if it hadn’t eaten in months; the brown fur was dull and gave little more impression of life than the fur on the dead kitten I’d seen that morning. As I walked past, I saw a long string of saliva drooling from the great flaps covering the mouth. The only thing suggesting the dog wasn’t one of the walking dead was its golf-ball-sized balls, which still looked capable of doing their job. Yet, despite its appalling condition, it still looked terrifying.

Monday 18 November 2019

On the rooftop at 7.30, waiting for breakfast, I looked at the sky and thought it less clear than the previous two days. There was no wind. Maybe the air would be worse, too, and I began to question my decision to turn down Sally’s hugely generous offer to treat me to a flight from Delhi to Kullu, not far from Manali. But I hadn’t been able to face the prospect of last-minute, late-night packing then getting up before dawn to get to the airport to fly out at 6.45, and I was trying to keep flying to a minimum. The decision had been made, and I hoped I’d be able to endure the fourteen hours in the bus. At least the seats in the massive Volvo would be more comfortable than the criminally cramped Airbus seats on the flight from Auckland to Kuala Lumpur.

I’d decided to buy tea for Sally, so I walked to Tooti Chowk, the frenetic hub of Main Bazaar. The shop I’d seen the previous day was closed, though, and so was Mr Bal Singh’s Uttam Tea Centre. I’d forgotten, or I hadn’t realised, that many shops were closed on Mondays. Would either tea shop open in the afternoon? I didn’t know, but I’d check. I wandered through the food market, which  was overwhelmingly dominated by vegetables and fruit, and tried not to hear the distressed cheeping of filthy chickens crammed too many to a wire cage. A man in a grubby black T-shirt and pants strode past, his feet in flip-flops covered in filth and blood and scraps of feather. I hadn’t eaten meat since getting off the plane (and some of what I’d been fed on the flights might have been meat in name only — meat as euphemism), and I hadn’t missed it. I’d had no ill effects whatsoever from eating the local food, and I hoped that would continue.

I checked out of my room and went up to the rooftop to write, but thinking about food had made me hungry. I packed away the pens and cahier and walked to the Capital Hotel dhaba. The dead kitten had disappeared at last, and beneath the bench I saw a tabby sniffing at the wall. She, at least, looked healthy, although her coat lacked any gloss. Excusable, I suppose: keeping your fur clean in the back alleys of Pahar Ganj must be a nightmare.

The Capital was busy, and I took a seat at the back. Everyone was eating Deluxe thalis: ninety rupees only. But I knew I couldn’t eat an entire Deluxe thali, nor even do it justice, so I ordered an aloo paratha. It came well-greased with melted butter and with a small dollop of typically astringent and salty pickle. As usual, it was far too hot for foreign fingers, but I managed to tear small strips off the edges until it cooled enough for me to rip it into less embarrassingly tiny pieces. Meanwhile, a toddler used his family at a nearby table as a base for exploring the dhaba, but he seemed unaware that I was an oddity even when his father pointed me out. Clearly, I was less interesting than his feeder bottle, and that was fine by me.

Tuesday 19 November 2019

At dawn I put my contact lenses in and watched the landscape slide past for the last several hours of the 14-hour journey from Delhi. I recognised the section along the dam; surprisingly, though, I didn’t remember the tunnel, which seemed to go on forever. I thought about the geology of the Himalaya and wished I hadn’t, but the more I tried not to think about earthquakes the more I imagined being trapped underground by rockfall, beyond all hope of rescue. The bus did finally emerge into daylight, of course, and given the behaviour of the traffic I was probably less safe on that section of road than in the tunnel, but that’s not how phobias work. I noticed, too, how I’d been less able to ignore how close the bus had driven to the edge of the road and the nightmare plunge into the lake, and I wondered whether I was beginning to lose my nerve, to lose my fatalism, to lose my ability to disconnect from reality when that was a sensible thing to do. Reading a recent article about outcome bias probably hadn’t helped. In short, outcome bias is the tendency to believe that because something hasn’t happened, it won’t happen. For example, people travel in dangerous places and return without incident; they then argue that those places are safer than they’re made out to be. The dangers are exaggerated, they say. If you live to tell the tale, the logic goes, the risks were overstated. The faulty logic of that should be obvious, but obviously it’s not.

Following Sally’s advice, I hired a taxi from the bus station to the Nehrukund bridge, where she met me and insisted on carrying my bags back to her place, a short distance away. In the afternoon we walked up the hill for an introductory tour of the village and to meet Prem, Sally’s friend, who had rescued a kitten for her.
  ‘I have a sick kitten for you,’ he’d said. ‘You need to look after it.’
He lit a fire by the stream and Sally made strong billy tea; we ate her apple cake with it and talked until the evening grew too cold. Prem, naturally, was impervious to the chill. He was from a farming and shepherding family. Sally had told me how bears would come down from the mountains to eat the apples in the autumn so the locals had to keep watch over their orchards. Jungle cats could also be found in the area, she said, and I asked Prem what sort of animals, other than birds, lived in the area.
  ‘Are there leopards here?’ I said.
  ‘Snow leopard,’ he said, indicating the mountains at the head of the valley. In the flat, dim light of evening, with a thin, partial covering of snow over black rock, they looked bitterly cold and hostile.
  ‘Have you seen a snow leopard?’ I asked.
  Prem nodded. ‘Yes, one time. Here, near camp.’
I didn’t doubt he knew what he’d seen — he knew the difference between snow leopards and common leopards — but to have seen a snow leopard so low down, in what was essentially a forested area well below the snowline, was unusual to the point of being remarkable. Perhaps it had been injured or otherwise unable to capture enough usual prey.

We walked the last part of the route home in the dark with occasional torchlight to let approaching vehicles know we were there. The kitten travelled the entire journey wrapped in Sally’s shawl, purring almost continuously. It was emaciated and desperately hungry, but, in the way of all cats, quickly found the wood stove, where it interfered with the stoking by sitting so close to the firebox that it singed the tips of its eyebrow whiskers so they curled like a hipster’s moustache. The cat clearly had panache.

Notes: 1.
1. Five-striped palm squirrel (Funambulus pennantii) on the rooftop of the Smyle Inn, Pahar Ganj, New Delhi.
2. Large-billed crow (Corvus macrorhynchos) near the route to Rohtang Pass, Himachal Pradesh.
3. Russet sparrow (Passer cinnamomeus) near Manali, Himachal Pradesh.
4. Prem at the campfire.
5. The kitten. It looks a bit like a demon cat in this photo but is actually a gorgeous little animal with a purr out of all proportion to its size. Bend down to stoke the fire and you're likely to be met with an enthusiastic hongi.

Photos and original text © 2019 Pete McGregor