Vashisth, Kullu Valley, India. Secondhand bookstores are a beautiful thing. Small backpacker havens harbor the most unusual collection of prose imaginable. It is unimaginable for their size. Generally, a selection of less than a hundred texts in english, crammed into a small room otherwise cluttered with tibetan brick-a-brac, Rajastani kitch, and strange articles of clothing only a backpacker would buy. Today`s selection features, as usual, Tom Clancy, Daniel Steel, Dan Brown, Harry Potter, John Grisham and the usual potboiler potpouri making up the bulk of the selection. Like most ill-managed secondhand collections, it has found a balast that will not be moved. Amidst these, Anna Karenina, which I read last time I was here, The Count of Monti Cristo, which one knows that now, if ever in one`s life, one is most likely to read, alongside dozens of other classics of British Literature which one knows one will never read, not even under these circumstances. But tucked in a stack, beside self-help and Pop-Hindu spirituality books, one finds The Unbearable Lightness of Being. It always works this way, in every bookstore, there is almost always one prize. Yesterday I found the Autobiography of Babur, the founder of the Mogul Dynasty in India, and descendant of Timur the Lame (Timurlane), but didn`t quite feel up to the task.
The Unbearable Lightness of Being is timely, for its asking questions that I am also addressing in my life, as I contemplate abandoning the bachelor life, as well as the unbearble weight of Compassion, whilst I study Abhidhamma when I`m not amusing myself with such erstwhile light reading. (mmm... just read the encylopedia entry on Babur and I wanna read his memoirs now (>.<)
Vashisth is another onsen/hotsprings town. But here the hotsprings are fed into an outside public bath and two segregated baths in the Temple. Around the tub there are blocks with stone carvings integrated into a newer wall which must be four hundred years old. The temple here matches the one in Old Manali and Manikaran, A stone spire the negative image of a gothic arch, surmounted by a square umbrella-like wooden roof. The snow in the region presumably required the addition of this wooden umbrella over the standard northern Indian style shrine. The carvings on this temple are more ornate, and its been better maintained and restored.
My hotel is at the top of the hill. From here, I do nothing. I look out over the end of the Kullu valley, to a mountain at least 6,500 meters in height. Not so big, but impressive for being set off by a glacial river running up to its base in the distance, and the grandeur of the valley and its subsidiaries downstream. The river is the Beas river, one of the five major tributaries to the Indus which constitute the Punjab. In a sense, I am on the Indus river, though technically the main stream originates in Tibet.
Jimmi Hendrix`s Star Spangled Banner is on the patio speaker outside my window. India has a way of holding onto the past, and specific parts of it at that, while the rest of the world has moved on. Thus you find Zoroastrians in Mumbai, Nestorian Christians, and The Doors, to say nothing of Bob Marley still in circulation. They even found one of the lost tribes of Israel here, still a tribe, still lost more than 2000 years later. I even heard Pink Floyd played in all seriousness. But yet, the music interspersed with Israeli and French bands, and accompanied by badly played guitar and the occasional recorder. The Israelis come to India and somehow make the whole place seem like a college dorm, only cleaner. Not that I`m complaining. Social phenomena are all equally interesting, even if this one excludes me by its Hebraic dialogue. Since there are so many of them, they cluster together like negatively charged ions, speaking Hebrew together, and making it very difficult and uncomfortable to the Hebraicly Challenged to become part of the conversation. One`s role is center or periphery, but never the happy annonymous medium. Still, they play guitars badly, smoke copious numbers of chillums, drink, eat, party, and occasionally leave the hotel, much like college. The average Israeli is fresh out of the military, on the way to University, and is here for one reason only--negatively formed--not to be told what to do. With this I can relate, though my freedom is more absolute. I learned a long time ago that I can`t play guitar.
My hotel is perched on the side of the hill, and in stages rises first three, then five, then seven stories. The high-rent rooms at 550 rupees actually have bathtubs in them. I`m in the mid-range room, a corner room with two windows facing the patio which overlooks the town and river below. Across the valley one can see Old Manali, and the turn I missed to get there, which led me through hundreds of acres of apple orchards, along a steep riverbank, past the site of the daily blasting for a new road, and several kilometers unnecessarily upstream to the next available crossing. Now, when I missed the turn, I was fairly certain I was heading in the wrong direction, in retrospect, but I asked no less than five people if the direction I was heading in was the direction to Old Manali, and they all concurred with me. Next time I alternate "Is this the way..." and "Is THAT the way..." Sanity checks are a constant necessity in this country, and one of the most valuable skills I learned from working Internet Security. The Sanity in Directions rule must be phrased thus: "Ask as many people as possible as many different formulations of the question as possible" with the corollary, "keep asking till you get there."
So I`m here in Vashisth dealing with the outside world. Khirganga was a nice reprise, but now I`m beset on all sides by issues arising unavoidable compassion. My family and best friends have all written to me stories of personal setbacks, crises, tragedies. Hundreds died yesterday from a stampede on a bridge across the Mother of Civilization, the Tigress river on their way to a religious ceremony. There is irony in that and perhaps a message. Then I`m reading of thousands dying in Loisianna from Hurricane Katrina, and fabled and beloved New Orleans under water in the "second-worst case scenario." The levees finally broke, and Naw-lins has no place to stay. 20 feet of water in parts of the city. Unbelieveable, but widely predicted. What is the misfire in the human survival instinct that causes people to live below sea-level in hurricane prone regions. Coastal land below sea level is always an oversight soon to be ammended. But there seemed to be a consensus that it was a good idea, so perhaps in New Orleans, Irony simply found manifestation in brick and steel... The point is, I am beset on all sides by human tragedy as a perfect counterpoise to a week in isolation. And my time is spent pointlessly. My routines snap like twigs. I`m not a traveller like Paul Theroux who sticks to a rigorous daily routine, and fills his days with activity. I am of the far more passive sort, who is content to sit with binoculars on a sunny day and survey. I usually eat two meals a day at no special time. I eat when I`m hungry and wash my clothes when their dirty and shave when I happen to notice my face feeling funny for I rarely look in mirrors. For me, travel is not a state of mind anymore. Its not an exhaulted state, and in fact it is a minor act in the balance of time I spend when I`m ostensibly "travelling." Travelling is taking three busses and riding on top of two of them after a two hour leisurely trek. Travel is not sitting on my ass all day, which is how most people actually pass the time between bus rides. I spend far more time simply being someplace, and scheming on the next place I`d like to be for a few hours or weeks. Honestly I wake up every day and feel like I could be anywhere with equal equinimity. When I go to live in San Francisco with my S/O, when I am demonstrably not travelling, how will it be any different than now? I will still wake up and think. "Thank god I`m not in Topeka."
From this continual ass-sitting comes great revelations. Such as the necessity of me getting said ass in gear if I want to accomplish some of the goals I`ve set out for myself. Now if you go back through that sentence and count the self-references, you will see how self-absorbed one can become. But instead, I`m beset as beforesaid. My friend, my brother, W. is in crisis right now. And he did the most sensible thing at that moment he could think of and proposed marriage. Of all the couragous acts of abandon, that was the most irresponsible and beautiful thing he could have done. What else is one to do when you hear the bells jingling on the gate, and its just the wind. There are a dozen stories equally too personal to divulge in any detail, but will be aluded to in due course, you pervy rumor mongers...
And this pain comes to me from overseas, and David Bowie, Space Odyssey plays on the stereo, and I dive into The Unbearable Lightness of Being and see the same scene being played in Prague. Sure the cast is different and there are fewer tanks on the streets of Seattle, but the pain is the same. And it is a pain I am so familiar with. And as the curtain drops on this act here in this play, we sit in suspense of the resolution in the other. My father will have to go in for surgery again... and I remember passing out upon seeing my father in suspended animation, his body bloated, and with far more wires attached than God intended. My errant friend Y. will give birth in the next week. She sent photos of her own bloated belly, promising a healthy baby, conceived in India; so few months am I behind her trail. There are car accidents leaving 16 year old nephews of friends dead along with his two friends--a senseless, sober accident. M. still wants to meet me in India, and I still have to say, I`m sorry. Its never easy to hurt someone you love, and though I have to do what`s right for me, I still feel her pain as my own, as if I was still sitting in the same room with her, watching those same eyes cry again.
Yet while all of this weighs on my shoulders, its hard to imagine a place as beautiful as this. Most people don`t have Tolkien`s depth of imagination, and even he, being just one man, couldn`t concieve what a thousand generations have come up with along this river. And the residue of all this civilization-ing lines the walls of this valley, bearing silent witness to the birthplace of all the sufferings of compassion arising from the decision to share one`s life with a tribe. For a man cut off from the world there is so much less pain. For one within it, the beauty and simplicity of happiness comes from knowing that you love, so willingly and fully the fulfillment of Love, that you will tolerate any suffering to bring its fruition. For those of us who spend so much time cutting fetters, that unbearable weight of compassion leaves us a little crazed. I can`t be with everyone who is hurting, those whom I want to hold. It would be enough for my mom if I were on the same continent, but W. needs me there to pour him a beer and I can`t. But I could, and I have no reason unselfish not to. But a coast-to-coast-to-coast mercy trip is neither the answer, nor can I but subtlely mitigate the pain for each. People seem to covet their grief; we can never seem to release ourselves of it. Ones suffering becomes a Ring of Power from which one is loath to part, though one it destroys.
But this is too heavy. In fact there is a pleasure to the pain. In knowing one loves, there is the possibility of being loved in return, and this bouys us in the sea of solopsism. For everything arises from causes, and intentions are usually good. We are going through life without a dress rehearsal indeed. We get drunk thinking to ease the pain only to replace it with another. All pleasures we get drunk with.
And tonight I`m drunk, stoned, and thinking of the sufferings of my loved ones. The only advice I can give falls on deaf ears, for none follow me in Travel but J. There is a message in that, too. One to which I`m far from deaf. But its hard for life`s sufferings to abide in a place as beautiful as this. Every moment is a pleasure and every movement is free. I have recurring dreams of prison the further I get from this emotional place now in which I abide. From here I can dream of any future and it seems a castle in the clouds, for it is not the escape from a situation which binds me. It is instead an escape from Paradise. Were I to work, were I to make, were I to do, all of it would be a step down from simply being in such a place of unparallelled liberty and beauty. Just over the mountain is a pink valley peopled by Tibetans. Shortly, I shall be a guest at a monesteary. Then a vagabond in a villiage at 14,000 feet. And I bet they even have internet when I get there. Waterfalls and rainbows and shooting stars are a standard backdrop on 500 year old temples and breathtaking mountain panoramas. One exists on the whole absolved from all the cultural conundra as an outsider, since as the force of modernization and source of affluence, one is nonetheless respected in the streets. The disconnect cannot be overephasized, for from the very source of pleasure arises the dissociation and annonymity which ultimately poisons this existence. There remains a door of opportunity to walk through, and travel at leisure. But leisure and travel rarely coincide in India. The better preposition is "travel unto leisure". The adventures are almost always amidst the "travel" parts.
Living in Vashisth is basically free from adventure. Its a very quiet town surrounded by apple orchards. In the center of town where the road ends are the three temples which make the town famous. The most exciting part of every day is when they blast the road across the river. Every day there are two to five dynamite blasts around sunset. It takes a week of diving for cover before one grows accustomed to it and starts finding a vantage point to watch the evening fireworks. Even still, more than once I spilled tea down the front of my shirt, or suddenly hit the deck when I wasn`t prepared. One night we were watching a documentary, filmed by an Italian who was staying at the hotel, of the 1999 Taliban invasion of Afganistan. The roadcut blasts added definite drama and better-than-Dolby™ surround sound to the excellent film.
At night, one hotel in Vashisth always showed movies. It became my nightly routine to go to the cinema. I met several interesting people there between showings, movies being a great icebreaker. One night a cute girl was sitting beside me and so I struck up conversation. It turns out she had just graduated from Oxford with a doctorate in Astrophysics. Heehee. We spent the rest of the evening discussing microwave radiation eminating from the Big Bang, and the density of energy in the universe. I dug up my best questions and biggest words, all the time appologizing that most of my knowlege of Astrophysics came from sitting around taking drugs in Boone, drinking too much coffee, and then swapping coffeeshop physics speculations at BeansTalk (RIP). She explained to me that around 100,000 years after the Big Bang, atoms started to condensate out of the slurry of electrons and protons as the universe cooled, and these atoms produced "bumps" or minute distortions in the microwaves radiating outwards from the event itself. These were the waves she would soon be measuring in her upcoming fellowship at Princeton, using NASA satellites, and were the subject of her thesis. She explained that since the three dimentional universe that we percieve is expanding in all directions from the moment of the Big Bang, this microwave radiation is apparently coming at us from all direction, and allow us to measure the curvature of space. It seems that if you pick two points at the edge of the perceived universe, the microwaves with the small bumps will be coming from 14 billion light years away; and by measuring the angle between said points, you will notice that the sum of the angles of the resultant triangle will be ever so slightly less than 180 degrees. Cool. Turns out that the universe is 40 billion years old, and that these microwaves conform to the Big Bang model back to first ten to the minus 25th second of our universe. But its silent about what happened or existed before then. And so was my friend. I kept probing the boundaries of the theory, but rapidly was confronted by my ignorance of Astrophysics. The furthest her speculation would go was to extra-dimentional space, but not to what existed at the moment of the Big Bang, which is really my biggest questions. Ten to the minus 25th seconds into our universe, its apparently clear what was going on, but prior to that, we have nothing. 100,000 years in we have particles disrupting the flow of microwaves, and then some 39,999,500,000 years later homonids started looking for some place to get in out of the rain. Science is cool. It has answers for everything.
In the end, I spent 11 days in Vashisth, though I`m not sure how. I was totally shocked when I got my bill for the hotel, which approached a hundred dollars for those 11 days. But the hotel also sold beer, and two beers cost as much as my room. They also made a pretty good "pizza." I`ve adapted, and in my heart I accept it as an indigenous form of pizza, and whether its flatbread with cheese and tomato sause or whatever, it is still good. I spent about five days with four Israeli guys who made me happy. Eran was a big Russian Jew with few inhibitions and several large tatoos. Itamar wore a thick beard with a thicker smile that never left his face. Amir was one half Jo. and the other M. from our days in Boone. He had the same bemused, engaged expression which those two turned upon the world. Finally, "Chotto," rounded out the group with almost Grecian good looks, but very little command of English. Together, they were a ready-made TV sitcom. And their bong never grew cold. They had manufactured it from a small PET bottle, and the water therein was constantly black. In India, there has evolved a culture for smoking hash that involves these horrible bongs, stone chillums (harsher than the normal clay style), and of course the king-sized joint. Most Israeli develop a snobbery against joints, and hence smoke chillum and bongs with a 60/40 blend of tobacco and charas, resulting in a smokers`s cough that makes William S. Buroughs sound healthy. The sound of "BOM" followed by a moment of gurgling and a resounding hack and spit is an integral part of the background noise of the Kullu and Parvati Valleys. Anyway, these four, fresh out of the Military and on their way to University were stereotypical of their race in India, but were so good natured, and so sedentarily parked in front of my hotel room on the patio that they became a fixture in my life. The only day they were not there was when they took acid and went paragliding. Tempting as it was to fly with them, I declined. That same day, I had a bit of a shakeup in my life.
A Change of Plans
I came to India with the sole intention of being in and around India for a year. This was suddenly and unexpectedly cut short by six months. Now, you may say that a six month holiday is quite a lot. But I`ve committed to being in Cambodia by the first week in November. Now, if I`m to be in Charlotte for Christmas, then there will be no returning to India after Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam as I`d originally intended. And since I`m two months into this trip now, that leaves me only two months more in India. Now anywhere else, two months is a long time, but in India its treated like a drop in the bucket. Most people are here for a mere ephemeral month, or else an indefinite timespan. I was of the latter, and pacing myself accordingly, when suddenly I was thrust upon the path of the former. Only two months left in India means I won`t be going to Sri Lanka. Getting home by Christmas, yet spending two months in Southeast Asia with J. negates all the fun speculation about routes homeward. In a single email, my life was turned upside down.
What this email said was that my father wants me to run his business for up to three months while he recovers from surgery. Now, this stings on a number of levels. Most fundimentally, that my father will be having surgery that will lay him up for three months. A close second, that he is asking me to fill his shoes, and replace him behind the camera in the studio. But third, it is unavoidable that I must live in Charlotte for three months. And finally fourth, It is necessary that I get my license back from the State of North Carolina, who had taken it away with I`m sure good reason some eight years ago. Eight years is a long time to be without a license, but if I am to stand in for my dad, then I must be able to drive. It was all too much to process in one day. Now, a week later, I`m starting to get a handle on how this transforms my plans. South America comes up on the agenda, as does buying a van and driving it to Alaska. The fallout of this call to duty is vast. I`ll be living three hours from J. and I`ll be in the same town as Jo.. And I`ll be on the opposite side of the planet from where I`m sitting now.
Its all slightly inconvinient, as January to March is the best time of the year to be in South Asia and the worst to be in North Carolina. Oh well, its a sacrifice I must make. Its utterly impossible for me to refuse this request. For more than ten years as I`ve floated from job to job without a career in sight, the offer has stood for me to take the business. But as much as I`ve loved photography, I`ve wanted to continue to love it and not to profit from it. But what I will learn in three months is vast. I have never had such an opportunity as three months with all the gear at my disposal. It will be great fun. But the part about living in Charlotte feels like a prison sentence. I have an irrational hatred of the city. I think it has to do with the fact that they put a road smack through the middle of the park I grew up playing in. They filled in half the pond, and paved the wilderness that was my refuge wherein I ran feral till the age of nine. Charlotte is a city of beautiful yards in which you almost never see a soul. Coming from three or four years in Asia, the city feels like a ghost town populated by car-bound denizens shuffling from garage to parking garage. Charlotte is about as antithetical to my Asian lifestyle as imaginable. Still, I`ll make the best of it. I`ll certainly get a lot of reading done.
Ki Gonpa, Spiti Valley, India. You meet the most interesting people on the road. On the ride here, I met two Frenchmen and a Russians couple on the roof of the bus. Its a funny story, since riding on the roof is not permitted on this route. Typically. The day started at 4am. And any time I have to wake up early, I always have the inability to get to sleep until quite late. So on two or three hours of sleep, I awoke to my alarm, startled out of a deep sleep. In the dead of the night, I vacated my hotel room, and made my way to the bus. There was a rickshaw driver waiting when I got to the bottom of the hill, but he wanted 70 rupees for what was normally a 40 rupee ride. I had time (just barely) to walk and make it to the bus stand, so I haggled for 50 rupees, but he wouldn`t drop below 60. Now normally I look at that extra ten rupees and say, "hey, thats 25 cents" and fail to give a fuck. But this time, it was paying 25 cents extra to hang out in the post-apocalyptic gloom of a backwoods Indian bus station reeking of piss and diesel. So I started walking. However, not fifteen minutes later, the driver pulled up and accepted my offer of 50 rupees. By that point I felt pretty stupid about possibly missing a bus over 25 cents, so I got in and arrived at the Busstand with half an hour to spare for my 5:30 bus. So, I rolled a cigarette, drank some chai, ate a jalapeno omelet with bread "slice", and then 5:30, nothing happened, no bus, par for the course. Incidentally, among the many bizarre things of India, the fact that they make an omelet-slice meaning omelet with four pieces of bread and diced japalenos by putting the bread into the half cooked egg, then flipping it to fry the bread, then fold the bread inside the omelet, thus utterly missing the point of The Sandwich. I refolded my sandwich and called it breakfast, as the dawn broke.
About 5:50, a bus arrived and the confusion began. Everyone boarded the bus for Spiti. However, it suddenly became clear that this was not our bus. I asked the conductor (busses in India have a driver and a ticket-taker) what was going on. He said, "your bus is missing." Missing. The bus was missing. What, exactly, does that mean, when both busses, the 5:30 and the 6am busses both left Kullu, travelled the same road, and then one went "missing." Nobody could elaborate, and the driver and conductor gave no indication that it would be wiser to wait for our bus for which we all had reserved seats. In the end, there were three people standing, including my Russian and French friends-to-be. I had learned my lesson previously and had quickly grabbed a seat. I had serious moral issues about forcing the lady to stand instead of giving up my seat, but I had practical concerns in that it was a 12 hour ride, and had no desire to stand myself (not to mention that she had a boyfriend already... husband as it turned out). But my selfish tendancies left two Russians to complain (politely) about the impossibility of standing for 12 hours, and after crossing the Rhotang pass and entering the Lahual Valley Michael finally persuaded the driver to allow us to ride on the roof.
The Rhotang pass is about 13,050 feet high, and marks the division of the Kullu Valley, from the sub-Tibetan plateau. The trees stay below on the Kullu valley side, and one descends opposite into the desert. The ride was spectacular. The landscape is strikingly reminiscent alternately of southern Utah, Arizona, and Nevada, as the bus bounces down the dirt and river rock road through the floodplain. On either sides of the valley there are the fractured shards of mountians rising up as false summits hiding the snow-covered peaks beyond, which are visible through the intervening watershed valleys which sculpt the slopes. In the first valley there is very little land for agriculture, and next to no inhabitants. But crossing the 100 meter pass into the Spiti Valley, everything changes, the river carves a 50 meter gorge through the floodplain, leaving arable land throughout the wide valley. Culturally, this valley is Tibetan, though it`s never been part of that country. It is wide, and the encompassing mountains are low, but the valley floor at this stage is already above 3,000 meters. Despite the fact that the valley floor sits on top of the peaks of southern Utah, it bears a striking and uncanny resemlance. Sandstone is prevalent, and gives the valley its dull pink tinge. Dotted throughout, off into the distance are villiages of a couple dozen white, flat-roofed buildings surrounded by wide stoney fields growing barley, lentils, potatos, and hay, while peering up the confluent river valleys, the next range back is invariably snow-capped. A very tall mountain seemingly caps the valley to the south, though the Spiti river drains into the Sutlej just beyond, and from there flows through the Punjab, finally emptying into the Indus. The headwaters of the Indus proper lie about 200 km north of here in Ladach.
The five of us chatted on the roof under the hot sun, while our mouths filled with dust. Being a glacial valley and an alpine desert, the soil is quite fine; the wind is usually heavy, and outpaces the bus when heading downwind. Thus, we were all quite a bit whiter by the end of the ride, our clothes, apparently faded in a single day. My throat felt chalky and my nose clogged. We arrived in Kaza (causing me no end of confusion, as I`d lived on Kazan, Flower mountain, in Kyoto--I kept thinking I had the name wrong) just ahead of a raincloud in the northern tributarial valleys. The sun had dropped below the lips of the valley, and we gathered ourselves together to come to Ki Monestary (Ki Gompa). The four others had thought to stay in Kaza for the night, so I`d suggested coming to Ki which is only 15 kilometers from Kaza. The five of us boarded a jeep and headed back up the valley to the monestary at 4,100 meters where I now sit writing this.
Ki Gompa is the oldest in Spiti valley, a the monestary is where the Dalai Lama is said to be going to retire.. to... Its a very active monestary, with chanting from 7am to 12:30. Food is basic. Damp tsampa (roasted barley flour) for breakfast with Tibetan butter tea, dahl and steamed buns (tibetan bread) for lunch, and rice and dahl for dinner. But its included in the 100 rupees a night for accomadation. Its also necessary, as the nearest villiage is two kilometers away; making alternate cuisine quite a trek. So, isolated here at 14,000 feet, I look up to the moutains beyond and cultivate the boredom necessary to get my ass in gear to do my homework. There is no electricity during the day, but they run a generator for an hour or so at dinner time, so I`m able to get a couple hours computer time every day from my partially charged battery. The first night I stayed with the two Frenchmen (who were totally uninterested in talking politics, much to my relief), in a comfortable, but stuffy room. Today, however, I changed to an amazing room, small, but with windows on three sides and an attached bath thats almost equal in size to the room. The door opens onto a patio that overlooks the valley far below. Views span at least 50 miles to the south and 20 to the north. The opposite side of the valley is a mass of rock jutted up from a primordial seabed and is completely barren. My room was where Tomdan Tulku Rinpoche stays when he visits the monestary; his bedding was kept in a locked cabinet in the room. The monestary wraps around a small hill, and just behind it the mountain rises up another 200 meters to farmlands outside the town of Kibber, which claims to be "the highest road-linked villiage in Asia." Every place should have a claim to fame.
I`m out of batteries, so I`ll have to call it a night.. .
I`m slowly falling into the rhythm of the monestary. They are in the middle of an eight day recitation of texts. Each morning the puja begins at 7am. My sleep is deep as my body is busy producing blood on an inadequate diet. Just walking up the stairs gets me winded. But I`m still transitioning from the "all-the-time-in-the-world" mode to the "two-months-left" mode. I know I`m still not seeing the place I`m in, so I sit and stare out over the valley and wait until it comes into focus. I spent the day reading the Abhidhammattha Sangaha, meditating, doing yoga, and in the afternoon, I climbed the hill behind the monestary to the meadow above a nearly hidden glacier. My legs barely felt the climb, but my lungs couldn`t keep up. I love high altitudes. Simple things become difficult.
The weather has been strange, cloudy with light dustings of rain, but the ground never stays wet for more than thirty minutes. At 13,500 feet the air is so dry and thin that it soaks up all available moisture even on cloudy nights. But being under rainclouds in the alpine desert after the monsoons just doesn`t make sense. One can see snow on all the mountains down the valley, the snowline seems to be getting lower by the day.
I think I`ll stay another day, and then hike up to Kibber tomorrow. Yet another town with intermittent electricity. I don`t know if they`ll have telephone or internet though... My contact with the outside world is so tenuous.
Lunchtime in the monestary is with the monks. I sit in the courtyard with the little boys in their robes. Few things are cuter than a 6 year old monk. Today was a special meal, mutton curry. I saw them butchering the remains of the poor creature in the kitchen. This was not done by monks. I ate the vegetarian option, along with less than a third of the monks: a potato and onion curry. The rest dined on mutton curry with steamed buns. Sitting on the ground in the courtyard, monks come by with buckets of curry, a tablespoon of red pepper, and a bin of buns to dole out to whomever has a plate. Today I`m the only foreigner here, but at night there have been up to 10 people staying in the monestary. Some purists might object to monks eating meat. But when you consider the diet--lentils, rice, various flour products, the occasional potato--meat seems to be an essential supplement. It turns out the creature had died of natural causes, and such meat being unsellable and a bad omen I presume, it was donated to the monestary.
I`m easing into a longer and longer sadhana. Today I meditated for at least two hours this morning in the temple during the chanting, and did a quick 20 minutes of yoga before lunch. Now, I sit in my room looking out over the fresh snow on the mountains, and contemplate three months in Charlotte. Its very strange how accessible all the world is. In April I could be anywhere in the world. If I buy a return ticket I`ll be back to India in time for the heat, or I could go trekking in Nepal. Or catch fall in the Andes, or what was winning out this morning, I could fly to Prague and travel the trans-siberian railway from Moscow to Mongolia, drop into China, then... Same route as I`d considered before, but this time backwards, as the start and finish points have suddenly reversed. The world is my oyster, whatever that means. I could even go to Africa. Egypt, Kenya, Tanzania... Anything is possible.
B. has grown up. Jo. has grown up. Matt has grown up. Tommy has disappeared. One by one my friends are settling into mature lifestyles. I see that it is inevitable that I must do the same, soon. So I`m looking at this current trip with a certain desperation. This may be the last and greatest freedom of my life. For if in five years I am to have children, then in three I must have a career. And if in three years I`m to have a career, then in two I must have a place to settle. Thus, J., San Francisco, and temp agencies appear to be my future. I can also squeeze grad school in there, but what won`t fit is another year of aimless wandering, following my desires. Nor does The Monestary fit in with that five year plan. Being here is a big part of making my peace with the life I will never lead.
The attractiveness of the monestary cannot be underestimated. It was the source of endless speculation ten years ago when my friends and I started down the path of adulthood. For myself, I`ve felt the call to the monastic life, at least in the abstract. But I had very little idea what that really meant. Now, as I sit in a monestary and observe the life of the monks, the daily routine, I realize how much of a pipe dream our vision of monastic life really was. It is not a choice for the kids who come here as boarding school. And those who stay on into the later years see very little of life. The two poles of my life, travel and spiritual development, appear to meet in the wandering ascetic, but not in the monestary. The monestary is the ultimate in the sedentary lifestyle. I`m not sure why I`ve been so attracted to the monestary. I`ve visited several, but few as up close and personal as this one. And I don`t think I`ll be staying.
The Ki Monestary is about 800 years old. The Tabo Monestary down the valley is over 1000 years old. That means these two monestaries, and indeed the Spiti Valley, have been Buddhist since the Ghandaran period, and perhaps with Muslim invasions, this was a place of refuge. The Spiti valley is very isolated, and very cold most of the year. I haven`t had the courage to take a bucket bath for three days, for fear of the chill. But today, if the sun holds out I`ll steel myself for the icy bath... or better still, I`ll walk down to the river!
Hmm.... think I`ll go do that now... but first my geology homework
Koksar, Middle of Fucking Nowhere, India. The Michelin Guide would have to device a new rating system based on how stringently to avoid a place in order to rate this hotel room. And this one would be close to but not quite at the bottom. Its redeeming qualities are that the light is actually wired to a switch, and the ceiling leaks only in one corner. And while water comes in under the door, it doesn`t go far. Transit towns and border towns have their own unique charm, reminiscent of my image of the top circle of hell; or purgatory for those really reallly borderline cases.
Its been a great day. Death was averted by a four leaf clover, but even that couldn`t get us through the third road blockage. But let me start at the beginning. Kaza, a truly dismal town. Completely devoid of any sense of civic order. The dirt and tarmac road in what would have to be considered the center of town, an off-T intersection, has a small rivulet running through the middle because a stalled construction project has diverted the sewage there. None of the buildings quite match up side to side, each with a different concept of what street level should be, and all wrong. The hotels are foul, and I chose the one I did because it carried itself with a certain perplexed dignity, though it did little to assuage the overall gloom of the town. This gloom is all the more pronounced at 4:15 AM, when one is forced to catch the only bus to Manali. But there is good reason for getting an early start, as we`ll soon see.
I had left the Ki Monestary as I had not so much planned, but knowing myself, had predicted. Two days I did nothing, one day I climbed the mountain, the next I`d walked down to play along the river, and the fifth, I felt it was time to leave. Time was melting away, and I was getting tired of being cold. So I packed my bags and after breakfast of Tsampa balls and salt-tea, I started making my way down to the road. I walked for 5 kilometers before I saw a single vehicle to flag down for a ride. Pretty much everyone picks up hitchhikers on this road, and everyone hitchhikes. Its the public transportation system, since the bus runs but once a day. I passed the time pacing off the kilometer markings. I now know it takes approximately 1300 steps from me to equal a kilometer over reasonably flat terrain. In Kipling`s Kim, they suggest using a mallah to keep count. I used my fingers one to five and back for hundreds, and it worked fine, too. I didn`t quite make it to 1300, but I could see the marker an estimated 50 meters (steps) in front when a jeep came by. I agonized momentarily about not finishing what I`d started, but since it`d been an hour and this was the first car I`d seen, I did just that. Turning to get in I saw that it was totally full of tourists and their detritus. I turned to start walking when the driver pointed to the roof. I wish I could have seen my grin. I`d never ridden on such a small vehicle`s roof. A simple Land-rover style jeep. It seemed risky even to me. Part of the security of riding a bus roof is their lumbering pace. But this one would be quite capable of throwing me. So I kept my backpack on (backpacks for some reason usually hit the ground first, cushioning one`s fall -- I know this from much first-hand experience), and tucked my toes into the luggage rack. Securely fastened in, I enjoyed the twisting mountain road for five more kilometers. The jeep turned away from Kaza, so I tapped on the roof and climbed down. My next ride came in a few minutes, a half-bed pickup jeep with a roof rack designed to be held on to by passengers. This took me straight to the bus station in Kaza. Here, I found that one must "reserve" a reservation for the bus, for 5 rupees. Which I bewilderingly did, took my chit and went to find a "hotel." The town, as I mentioned before was dismal and every hotel room looked like an internment camp. The only hotel that didn`t look fallen down or presently under construction was quirky in that they had a quarter scale pingpong table in the central room off of which all the bedrooms opened. The restaurant had floor seating, and the "manager" seemed uninterested in me (a good thing). The room was wide with two windows, one facing a brickyard, the other a wall. But above the brickyard was the fabulous spiti valley, with storm clouds gathering at the summits. I managed to get a few moments of internet before it broke down for good, and then ran into my Russian and French friends who were also leaving the next morning. The Frenchmen were heading to an uncertain future in the Kinnaur valley where recent flashfloods and removed 30 or more bridges and dozens had lost their lives. Still it was rumoured that it was possible to get through by changing jeeps and riding in a basket on a pulley over a cable across the river. (there has to be a name for those things). The Russian couple was trying to get to Ladach across the damaged but not completely destroyed bridge near Keylong. I was going the sensible direction: back down the mountain. It was clearly an ill-fated season for tourism in these mountains. I went back to the bus station at 5pm to get my actual reservation for the bus, and later that night watched a stupid Van Damme movie on T.V. with my friends.
In an early morning drizzle, which had been intermitant the day before, I walked to the bus "station." There are no streetlights of course in this town, as in most villiages, so I was picking my way among mud puddles by flashlight (torch). When I got to the bus station, there wasn`t so much as a single bulb illuminating the whole thing. There was a light on in the office, but all the passengers awaited departure in pitch darkness. There is at least a shed roof over parking for four busses, and with only two in the garage, it was spacious and out of the rain, and welcome for that. At promptly 4:30 the bus departed and started out into the storm. Just on the edge of town a group of school children I`m guessing 8 to 12 years old got on the bus. One kid was sitting beside me, and I counted myself lucky because the seats were quite small, and so was he.
I pulled out my sleeping bag and wrapped myself up, as much for cushioning as warmth. I even managed to doze off for a while. But as the dawn broke, it became obvious that I was now in a completely different valley than the one I`d travelled down five days before. The snow line was at about a thousand meters above the valley, and steadily dropping . We stopped at the police checkpoint whereat foreigners are obliged to register, the sun made a momentary appearance through the clouds. This was when I realized that the kid beside me had thrown up on the floor beneith us and one corner of my sleeping bag had... well you don`t need to hear everything. I cleaned my bag as best I could. I smoked my first cigarette of the day. I`d rolled three the night before, figuring it adequate for the twelve hour ride. While smoking I looked over and realized that I was in fact standing in front of the police station, but really it didn`t matter. When I reboarded the bus I noticed I`d been issued a different kid. This one only slept the entire ride. Improbably and through unimaginable conditions, he was barely conscious.
We kept climbing out of town over what in retrospect hadn`t seemed like much of a pass. That was because then it was under bright sunshine, whereas today it was under 3 inches of snow, and it was still falling thickly on the pass; a wet heavy clumpy snow. The kind that weights down wet mud and causes landslides. We`d climbed through the snow for about thirty minutes, and at the top, the stupas were well worshipped. By everyone on the bus, Hindu, Muslim, and Buddhist. I`ve given up on the religiosity of Buddhism almost entirely, but facing the descent and subsequent valley passage that were to come, I too offered cursory supplication.
The schoolmaster of the children was a real tyrant. For the first 20 minutes of the ride he was mercilessly, and senselessly rearranging the children on an overcrowded bus. He seemed to be constantly yelling at them, though the kids, being of a mostly Buddhist culture, seemed not to notice. As we crossed the pass however, he commanded them to sing. And then to sing louder. It was like something out of Maoist propaganda, only they were singing religious songs. Nevertheless, it was terribly cute, as most things forced upon children are. Why is that?
The mountains which five days before resembled Utah, Nevada, Wyoming now looked like nothing but the Himalayas. Where they had been nearly bare the week before, now there was snow gracing every crevace. Suddenly you could sense your altitude, you could see impending doom around every corner, and you realize that this is not a place for human beings. The road, now a muddy track through a boulder strewn field seemed an exotic paradise for a Florida redneck in a jacked up 4-wheeler, but certainly no place for a bus. Which of course was the reality of our situation: 4-wheeling in a schoolbus.
We made it down the dozen hairpin turns to the Lahual Valley floor, where the road gets really interesting. Its all through the wide, boulder strewn floodplains, and we were once again below the snowline, well, at least the line where snow sticks. It was nevertheless about five degrees and snowing. I was very thankful to have my sleeping bag to bundle up in. We were not ten kilometers into the valley, though, when we came upon two trucks. The first had broken a steel cable trying to pull the other back onto the road. Several of the younger men on the bus jumped out to stare and offer moral support. There was a boulder in the road, about four hundred pounds of granite, which the truck was apparently trying to avoid, when the shoulder caved in under his drive wheels and he`d bogged down. As everyone tries to give directions, all contrary to what I`d be saying if I spoke any Hindi, I smoke my second cigarette. Two or three of us set about the task of rolling the square boulder off the road. My shoes get completely soaked as I`m up to my ankles in mud, but I got a sense of pride and triumph and a good workout to compensate for ice-cold feet. At any rate, I changed into wollen toe-socks and flipflops for the remainder of the ride. No harm, no foul.
So as we were clearing the road of the boulder, I began to get the impression that everyone else was simply trying to clear the road of the truck. They kept stacking rocks in front of the front wheel, completely ignoring the drivewheel which was bogging further and further down into the mud, into the soft shoulder, and upsetting the precarious balance of the truck nearly teetering off the road. I know these bus drivers, and they`re psycho. They`d have to be to do this job. I try to jesticulate wildly indicating that a few rocks under the drive wheel and the truck would be free, but the bus driver is the only one taking charge and sorta motions me to be patient, and wait, that perhaps I didn`t see the bigger picture. I could almost imagine a conspiratorial wink.
You wonder, how does a rock that big end up in the middle of the road. Square boulders don`t roll, you say. Well, as if anticipating your question, about 300 meters in front of us on the mountain, and a thousand meters up, I hear a crack, boom boom, rumble, and see an even larger boulder come bounding down the mountain, stopping not too far above the road. I`ve seen signs that say "watch out for falling rock" in Japan, and jested that they had the verb tense wrong: fallen, not falling--what are you going to do about falling rocks. Now I finally understood: watch out for them. This was not a safe place to be.
We left the truck driver to the fates, and with the road now cleared, maneuvered around the truck. We made it most of the way through this inhospitible reason through snow flurries, until the valley dropped a bit below the clouds. Here at a roadside dhaba, we stopped for dinner. I ate mine quickly, plain dhal and rice doesn`t encourage lingering over a meal. I went to the dhaba next door for chai and my last cigarette. As I was smoking a man from the bus, also a conductor from the bus company, but off duty, came over to stand with me. He made no effort to speak other than to point at my cigarette and wink, and so I offered him some, he declined, and we stood silently together. Thus began our friendhship. I had been staring at a patch of clover when he walked up, and, what is that? Of course with someone standing beside you, you can`t chase false positives, so I stared and stared at the clover and resolved every possible vector for the four petals I was seeing, and... took the risk of looking foolish and.... sure enough. A four leaf clover. My months and months of searching that began in June finally were fulfilled. Since June (and quitting my job) I`ve found a five leaf clover, a 3 1/2 leaf clover, a whithered and bug-eaten four leaf clover, and then finally, a full, healthy, and mint-condition four leaf clover. I was overjoyed. I showed it to my new friend and he stared at me blankly, but with a polite smile. I silent told him to go fuck himself and tucked it it my wallet.
Not 30 minutes later we stop, and see the jeeps that had passed us on leaving Kaza hours before stopped in front of us. Not a good sign. In fact the traffic was stopped up around the next curve, and in the distance we could see the traffic in the opposite direction stopped as well; almost a hundred vehicles I could count backed up. So, having learned the lesson to be patient, I just sat and slept. But when I woke up and there was still no movement, I decided to go for a walk and risk getting my last dry footwear wet (anyway wool rocks). Walking a kilometer down the road I rounded a corner and saw... oh shit... the problem. See, the problem was that they built the road across what is obviously a landslide. The road was carved out of mud on a 60 degree slope, This muddy shoulder had given in under a hapless trucker, who was damn lucky to be alive, as only the back wheels of his vehicle were dangling over the edge of a 500 meter drop down a ravine carved by a cascading waterfall.
Clearly this was going to take a while. And also clearly I had not rolled enough cigarettes.
It had already taken long enough for a tow-truck to be called, and a "road crew" to be called. Though to call them a road crew is really not to do them justice. There they were, 5 or 6 of the poorest devils in India doing the most backbreaking, dangerous and unrewarding job imaginable. Their task was to use a shovel between them and whatever rocks they could scrouge to rebuild the road enough for the heavy vehicles to pass. It was a task that was futility itself. Scarcely 2/3rds of the one lane road was left, and it was barely the width of our bus. Nevertheless, with the truck removed and robbing Peter to pay Paul, they stole rocks from a retaining wall a little ways away and shored up the mud slope enough to support a goat or a donkey, but we were entrusting this "road" with our bus.
Everyone deboarded. I had mixed feelings about this. Here we were, trying to get where we were going. And here was the bus driver, just doing his job. If it were up to him, I`m sure he`d wait at the dhaba until they`ve built a vaiduct and four-lane highway. But here he was, risking his life for a few rupees a day, hardly enough even to meet his daughter`s dowry. Everyone seemed unsure of the prospects. Normally there are one or two people, foolhardy or overconfident who always proclaim at moments like these that its "no problem" and it will just be a "few minutes." This time nobody was laughing. When the bus driver boarded the bus to make this run, he looked visibly shaken, bound by his duty to drive the bus, obligated since other drivers thought it was "possible." His face showed worry and fatalistic resolution. Of course I don`t speak Hindi, but he expressed to those who asked him it the bus would make it something to the effect that we would see. Everyone gave him that weak smile that you give to someone headed to the electric chair. As a jesture of solidarity I wanted to ride with him. Or drive for him. But part of the rationale of everyone getting out and walking was that the bus would be lighter, so I set aside my hubris and false bravery and forded the stream crossing the road with every one else. There I waited, camera poised, for what I was sure would be certain doom.
The bus gunned the engine, the road crew stepped aside and watched. You could cut the tension with a knife. Smoke bellowed from the exhaust. Delicately, he gunned it across the void. Just as he was about to be clear, knocking one or two rocks loose, he had to slam on the breaks to avoid colliding with a boulder on the inside of the road. Then he had to back up a little and try a different angle, starting with the drive wheel balanced on three large rocks. From photos you can see the tires of the bus were on the very edge of the rocks that had been stacked on soft, wet mud, and that mud giving out beneith the rocks. But the driver and the rest of us were victorious as the bus made it through, flew across the flooded rivulet, and my heart started beating again. It was one of the bravest acts I`ve ever seen. I did intensive study of soil dynamics as a child in the sandbox, and I was sure that it was all but hopeless. I`m glad I was wrong. I cheered and clapped, the rest of the bus, being Tibetan, gave that enigmatic smile that passes in their culture for exhileration and relief. Bus drivers are the unsung heros of India, bringing transportation to the most remote corners of the world, like Spiti Valley. Yet I have never seen a shrine to the "dutifull busdriver" or to the ones killed in action. We all got back on the bus and the guy beside me (the kid had been relocated), who spoke no English said, "Risk." I said something to the effect of, "fuck yah."
But we still had the BIG pass to cross. Rhotang-La, which had seemed so alpine and pastoral on the way down, suddenly seemed ominous, as it was a good 1000 meters above the snow line. But thats not where the problems arise. Its problematic at the snowline where its neither frozen nor liquid. This is where its usually steepest, and messiest. We were beginning to climb the pass when our driver conferred with an oncoming driver. After a short dialog, and I reiterate, I speak no Hindi, nor can I be sure that that`s what they were speaking, but the jist of it was, our driver asking "So what`s the road like up ahead." "Fucked." "Right, so where are you taking your guys to spend the night?"...
We end up on the wrong side of Rhotang La at sunset. After dark, now reader, many of you have not been here but I`m sure even the thickest of you are aware of the complete impossibility of roadwork on these mountains in these conditions at night, so you can undoubtedly infer on your own the conditions of the town-of-no-other-alternative that is Koksar. A name I remember by the convinient and descriptive epithet that it is a cocksucker of a town. Mom I think of you as I write this, but it is true. It is demonstrably a Koksar of a town. I have pictures to prove it.
I began this by saying that Michelin would have to device a new ratings system for how strengently to avoid places... We`ll just give this one a 7. True, its not a war zone, which would get a 10. And its not even a disease-outbreak zones or the sites of any recent natural disaster which would be a 9. At 8 we get into categories of tastelessness, such as Topeka, Kansas which, while there`s nothing wrong with the city, there`s nothing to recommend it either. Now having said that, its likely that you might get it into your mind now for that very lack of a reason, to go to Topeka. In fact, having written this very sentence I can assure you that in the near future, I`ll probably make Topeka my own destination. However there is a great difference between an 8 and a 7. A seven is a place that turns out to be slightly worth the effort in the end. This town of Koksar, for all its Himalayan diaspora, does have a certain degraded novelty value. Truly senseless novelties like the Corn Palace and Wall Drug are a 6; to be avoided, but if you happen to be in the neighborhood... Washington D.C. and Belgium are 5s; they don`t seem like real places, they lack authenticity. I`m sure I`m not alone in thinking that someone made up Belgium, and Flemish is just rediculous. Amsterdam, Las Vegas, and New Orleans (present circumstances excluded) are all 4s, because in fact you should avoid them (presently New Orleans comes in at a 10, last I checked). 3s are places you secretly really want to go anyway, like Iceland and Siberia. 2s are places people important to you want to go to which you`re not adverse to going. Places like Niagra Falls or the Grand Canyon. 1s are places you save for later.
So this place is a seven. It does have a certain derelict charm. And in fact, being a mere 50 meters (yards) from the beer store proved to be a great convinience considering the continuous drizzle and mud just barely less deep than your flipflops (thongs). The bedroom was funny. Anyway, when I arrived I went to the Government resthouse and enquired as to a room. Mostly for comedic effect. There was a bus full of school children which I was riding to consider. They took the dormatory. And rooms, he told me with a straight face, were starting at 1000rs a night. I think I said something witty, like, "well, thats too expensive. Where can I find something cheaper." And he said something about across the street. Where the town was.
"Town" in this case consists of roughly stacked stones with tin or plastic roofs stretched across sapling beams. My "guesthouse" was a step up from this. My roof was a permanent-esque structure, as I said before leaking from the roof in only one corner. Of course water ran in from under the door, but that doesn`t affect anything, as you wouldn`t want to put anything on the floor anyway. The bedsheets were not suspect, they turned themselves in and pleaded guilty on all charges. My strategy was to quarentine one bed to be the one of the three I would touch, and was careful to let only synthetic and waterproof materials contact the room in any way. The smell of burning karosene and dung mixes with the diesel exhaust burning rich due to the lack of oxygen in the air. And clearly, I shouldn`t have to state that one of the four panes of glass in the window was broken.
And in my notes I found this aside. I still think it fits nicely at this point. There was a disconnect. My friend from the Dhaba, the one to whom I`d shown the 4-leaf clover, was near me on the bus. It was the first time I`d ever seen an Indian lose hope. I asked him how it looked. He said, "Its looking less and less hopeful" which matched my sentiment and heightened my anxiety. If the driver had died, I would have felt culpible. I would have felt responsible for not truthfully speaking my mind and telling him, "don`t do it man! Its just a fucking job. Its not worth dying for." Forwith the bookie in my heart the odds were 2:3 against. If I had let him die, holding my tounge in my own vested interest of getting (the fuck) off of that mountain, then what good would I be? The fact is that I didn`t speak out, though I thought I knew. Yet I was wrong. So what karma accrues as a result of this?
I had a dream the other night that I was travelling with J. somewhere, presumably Japan, when I realized I was about to be late for work at NOVA. This was because I was on the wrong train. So I left Julie on the train and told her I`d meet up with her later, perhaps in Osaka, and caught the next train back to Ishiyama in Shiga. But I`d gotten off at a local train stop. So the express trains went by and I got later and later. I kept trying to call in to Personel to let them know I`d be late so I wouldn`t be docked my five lessons pay, but I couldn`t get through, I kept getting a runaround on the messaging system. Finally I got through, but at that point I was already at work, calling from the work phone, and on time, so... I hung up. But then I realized that I was at work, and on the schedule even though I had resigned prior to travelling with Julie. In fact, I didn`t work for NOVA, yet I was still on the schedule. Since I was at work already, I decided to stay. I looked at my schedule and anyway I had five lessons free. I did the math. If I hung out at NOVA, for eight hours, I`d get 130 bucks. Cool. So I decided to stay, everyone was really glad to see me, glad that I was back, and then I woke up. Those sneaky Japanese.
So, there I was, in Koks(uk)ar. The restaurant in the guesthouse was partially flooded, and extremely drafty as it had no doors, and few walls. It was dark and rainy. I was dressed in my red North Face gay-ass rainsuit, becuase I was cold and wearing everything else as well. I drank a chai, then found a cheerier place to eat rice and dhal. So I went next door and at at a restaurant, a small cramped room humid from all the damp people illumintated by a single incandescent bulb. But I was thrilled because they not only had dhal but Subji!!!! Not only beans, but vegetables. And this excited me. Yet, my hopes were slightly higher for the night. When we made it through the second roadblock, I was sure that I was going to be dipped in a hotsprings, eating "pizza," and drinking "beer" by nightfall. To be abruptly halted without so much as seeing what was in the way... it was unfair. So to be thrilled by curried potatos as a change of pace from the more "regional" anti-cuisine of Ki Gompa and Kaza, it was almost depressing. But that`s what beer is for, and as I said, a mere 50 meters from my bed. So I wrote the beginning of this story there, and the end in retrospect and have in a sense relived these pleasant memories. Its a paradox, the most difficult parts are always the most interesting. Yet we avoid difficulty.
Day 2 of 1
I slept like a baby, woke up and packed my things, being careful not to touch anything. I was up, dressed, fed, and stoned by the time the bus driver emerged from the Government Guesthouse (i bet HE didn`t pay 1000rs). For my morning constitutional, I had a bit of a dilemma. The town uses not the modern, but the traditional "septic field" system. Which is that you walk out into the field to take a shit in the morning, and come back refreshed. Now the intricacies of finding a less fouled zone to do one`s own business I`m sure is a science someone ought to study. But scatology has only a passing interest for me, most notably when I find myself in conflict with the local norms of sanitation and privacy. In this instance I had no idea where to do my business. So, I walked a bit down the road, watched where Indians would go, then noticed where the goats would go. I designated myself an honorary goat, but as I was trained in Boyscouts, covered my shit with a large flat rock as I left. I don`t remember if I wiped with leaves or water, but then you don`t really care, do you.
The town looked even more inglorious by day, surrounded by the monumental Himalayas, the most insignificant peak of which would shame any other mountain range. This encampment of a town was actually an incrustation on the mountain sort of a tidal pool residue of trapped humanity for when Himalaya-ji decides to close her passes. She is a goddess in India, and known for her moods. The valley was stunning, now capped with snow where one week before had been bare peaks. Its character completely changed in a few short days. But we still have to get over Rhotang-La. So everyone boards the bus, and we start, go five feet, and stop. It goes on like this to the edge of town. Then we get out onto the open road, drive to the next Dhaba, and stop. And wait. Its tedious. Less than 40 km from Hotsprings and "pizza" and they`re teasing me. We finally set out past the dhaba on rumors of traffic movement, and came to the source of last night`s debacle. At first it wasn`t clear from a distance what you are seeing. Then you realize that they don`t have trucks that open like that in India like they do in Japan. The truck is on its side.
Moving closer, you see that there had been a mudslide, the truck slipped on the slick mud, and again, sunk into the even softer shoulder and rolled. The driver might have walked away from it with cuts from the shattered windshield and side window. But maybe not. 4 wheel drive jeeps were having no problems getting around the hairpin turn in the middle of which the truck had rolled. However the lorries were not taking any chances. But we had a bus. The bus driver unloaded everyone to go around the block, and gave it a go. And then another. And another, finally it became clear that a single drive wheel was not going to get a fucking bus through a mud-bogging course. That`s crazy talk. It was just the steepness of the grade that was the killer. Though the team of drivers did a admirable job, the bus would go no further.
We were loaded onto a second bus (these stories are so common, by the way, that its almost tedious to write about them, cause you`ve heard it before, even while its happening to you) and two busses were sort of mixed together a little. There was then another ticket check. Of course I`d lost my ticket by this point. Now, to add insult to injury, in addition to being forced to stay in Koksar away from my hotsprings and pizza, I would be forced to pay double for the privilege. Even though everyone on the bus could vouch for me, I would still have to pay. Or else, what was to stop me from buying a ticket up to Koksar and then staying on to Manali. Did everyone on the bus check your ticket? No. This appears to be the only hard and fast rule in India. I tried on both busses. Same story. I`d have to pay 50 rupees to get to Manali or no doubt, they`d put me off the bus. Now to double that, earlier that morning, about 30 minutes before the bus left, a jeep driver offered to take me to Manali for 150rs. But. get this... I stayed with my bus out of loyalty. Life, sometimes is cruel.
So, now that I`ve been dickering around, of course I`ve lost my seat, so I must in addition stand for the 6 hours back to Manali. So I stand in the doorway, forcing my way to the lower step so I can see out the window at least. I fight with local goat herders getting a ride over the pass to the other side for 4 rs to maintain my pole position. This behaviour is respected here. Finally, I get there, and I plan my well rehearsed let me off here speech. At the bottom of the hill below Vashith. I enjoy the warm air, the climb up the hill, and all the old familiar faces, the familiar shops, the extravagant food and the palatial hotels. Fifteen minutes after checking in to my hotel I was soaking in the hotsprings. In fact I chose the closest room I could find to the hotsprings. Though I planned to stay in Vashisth for one night, I stayed three. But you knew that would happen, didn`t you?