An ongoing and occasional series of long posts about a 3-month trip I took to India in 1982. I was 25, and traveled by train across the country alone, writing an article on the then-unknown Indian film industry and combating the anxieties of youth and solo travel. Often includes references to what I wore. I kept journals, and abstract them in these page. You can find the previous posts by clicking on the “India” topic in the sidebar, or a Google map of the trip, here.
Having failed to leave Darjeeling for Sikkim, I needed another plan.
I had by now been traveling for two and half months. I knew some things. “Right, then,” I must have thought, “Is there a tourist center?” Or maybe I asked the desk clerk at my hotel what I might do for the next few days.
The next few days included Easter. I did not grow up in a religious family, but we had always hunted for Easter eggs, dyeing and crayoning them in kitchen after kitchen. House after house.
Darjeeling did have a tourist center. They told me I could hike up to Sandakphu and see Kachenjunga from a distance. Sandakphu is the highest point in the Indian state of West Bengal, at 11,929 feet. Kachenjunga, the 3rd highest mountain in the world. The tourist center also told me that, since said hike required a knowledge of trails and two overnight stays, I should hire a guide. And, by the way, the guides were outside waiting.
Whether I chose the man in the knit hat, or he chose me, I do not remember. I wondered if I was nuts. “Is this safe?” I thought, “Should I really wander off into the mountains of India by myself with a young man who speaks almost no English and whose name I cannot decipher?” I figured that it would be OK.
Luckily, I was right. We have to remember the context.
My guide provided me with someone else’s hat and jacket. That was that. Off we went.
Of course, to the young girl above, my expedition was just a morning walk with Grandmother. You know how young European teenagers carrying huge backpacks lumber through American financial districts, surrounded by office workers in broadcloth? That was me, in sneakers and a parka along the path.
A path that fronted mountains,
…and native rhododendrons. Today rhododendrons decorate California’s ranch houses like outdoor wallpaper, remnants of mid-century landscaping that knew nothing of droughts or xeriscaping. Along the India-Nepal border of 1982, these were fierce shrubs indeed. Like zoo animals in the wild.
We walked all day, until the light began to temper. Arriving at a little village, we set down our packs.
Fog rolled in. Here we were to spend the night. The family made a living offering sleeping space to passing hikers.
This is a picture of the bed in the front room. Pages from movie magazines decorated and insulated the walls..
I find myself in a village without electricity, where they’ve never seen a watch that beeps, where Tibetan flags wave and everyone speaks Nepali…The grass is green enough to swim in. Colors take on deeper hues in silence, deepest of all in silence enclosed by fog. Even me, in red pants and the old man’s sweater, even I take on a deeper hue.
My guide and I ate with the family, squatting around a large pot heated over a fire on the ground. I don’t remember feeling apprehensive, or uncomfortable in the slightest.
I wrote more, perhaps suffering by now from slight altitude intoxication,
Quiet nights fall darker than nights lit by cries and horns and brilliant spitting. Nights like an open door, easy, safe and provoking thoughts of eternity. Birds. Birds and children. Birds, children and shivers. A flag waving, seaweed in a wave, silent breezes. Bell ringing to bring in night free of spirits. An empty fullness of self.
Rereading my journals, 30 years later, I want to tell young people that most of the time it is enough to simply observe.
Time came for sleep. I was ushered, respectfully and with ceremony, to a large room high above the pig pen. It was the family place of worship, empty except for a bed and a large altar. They showed me how they were locking the room so I would be safe. With a key, from the outside.
I woke up. And I had to pee. My apologies to you and to my Aunt Priscilla for the use of this term in print. Not that I don’t say the word, not being a prissy sort, but it feels quite odd to type. After careful consideration, I decided that euphemism would be worse. This is often true.
I was infinitely too embarrassed to wake the non-English speaking family and communicate my problem in sign language. I was also quite clear that I could not use any of the bowls on the altar, although the thought crossed my mind. Talk about breaking protocol. And the room was way too high up to exit through the window.
Which left one option. Thus I clambered, pants off, into the window frame, and squatted half in and half out. A genetic capability for optimism kept me laughing even while trying not to fall through the window. I do not think I worried much about toilet paper, under the circumstances.
I can only hope the pigs didn’t mind.
Next morning the grandmother, or she might have been the mother, had someone translate that one of her little girls had expired, December 11th. I noted that in my journal, and said nothing about my nighttime manoeuvres. Priorities correct. What do you do when you’re 25, in the foothills of the Himalayas, listening to tragedies that you get to leave behind? Say thank you for the food and pay your bill. So I did.
Off we went. A little boy bade me Namaste.
The climb grew steep. I followed my guide. The effort felt very close to too much, but I kept going. If you think about it, I could have asked to stop. Again, youth.
We arrived at Sandakphu in the dark. We shared the traveler’s hut with two men, one named Peter Spottiswood, and one, apparently, Helmut. Or so my notes tell me.
Easter Sunday dawned foggy. Had we been granted we clear skies, you’d see all kinds of mountains at my back. Instead, all I’ve got to show is a borrowed hat and jacket, city wool pants, and American sneakers. Also a girl grin. I didn’t mind the lack of promised view at all. Who can mourn vistas when you’ve peed out a window onto Nepali-speaking pigs?
I climbed up to 12,300 feet, but I didn’t see any mountains. The chocolate Easter egg I had bought was broken in the backpack, so I shared it with my guide & the owner of this guest house. I didn’t see a cross, a bonnet, a rabbit or a rising soul.
…I know what Kachenjunga looks like though. I saw it from the bus.
The next day we ran down all the mountains in one go. I wrote,
I have always had such a fear of going downhill. I hate the feeling that at any minute I might lose control and go rolling away over the stores. Well, Peter Spottiswood told me how to walk downhill. “Just let gravity do it,” he said.
I remember feeling scared and exhilarated by our pell-mell descent.
Now that I’m 56, and living in Northern California suburban comfort, if I let gravity do it I’d never leave my faux suede sofa. Feet on the coffee table. I wonder if it’s a cheap trick to note that you’ve got to put yourself atop a mountain to be able to trust gravity and call it friend. Pigs, of course, pigs are all serendipity.