Sunday, April 20, 2014

India: Trekking and making chapatis in the Himalayas

My final India entry is about a breathtaking place that is the exact opposite of chaos.  It is also completely different to the luxury we experienced in Delhi, Ranthambore, and Jaipur.

We took an early morning flight from Delhi to Kulu, at the foot of the Himalayas. The small plane landed in a valley between two Himalayan peaks. The October air was crisp and fresh, welcoming the first signs of winter. We drove to Manali and rested until the following morning, when we met our trekking team, which consisted of five Nepalese porters, a Nepalese cook, and a guide from Manali. In a minute, I'll explain why this man became my hero.

We started off in a car, until the road ended. Up the mountain we walked, past villages whose residents hike up to two hours to and from the nearest town. They live in beautiful stone and wood houses with balconies that have views of the Himalayas. Close your eyes and picture waking up to that every day.

Someone's house in the Himalayas
This time of year, the woods are lush and rich with blooming apple trees and sweet corn that is cultivated along the mountain ridges. In winter, however, the terrain changes and becomes a scene of frozen air and mountain peaks. We continued to trek up the mountain, deeper and steeper into the pine forest. Out of nowhere, we found a small house and its inhabitants. As I thought about how difficult their isolated life must be, the grandmother, who was sitting in the yard knitting, pulled out her mobile phone to answer a call.

Before sunset, our porters set up camp in a valley. Here I was in a tent in a Himalayan forest with a pencil, my journal, and my husband reading a book. Alone with my thoughts. Disconnected. Silence. Will I last the next two days?

Our tent.
Our cook's resourcefulness would impress any Michelin-starred chef. He made due with two kerosene stoves, a pressure cooker, two pots, and a pan. The porters carried tins with food for the eight of us. We opted for a vegetarian menu, and were delighted with the tomato soup, daal, rice, cauliflower, and chapati meal by candlelight. 

My first time sleeping in a tent, and I chose the Himalayas to do it. I admit I'm an at-least-three-stars-kind-of-girl when it comes to accommodation, and this tent was not my favorite thing in the world.

We woke at 6am to use nature's bathroom, had breakfast, and began our four-and-a-half hour trek. I was impressed with my ability to walk uphill for this long. I did it! We reached our camp site and enjoyed an afternoon looking at the Himalayas. We hid in our tent when it started to hail, and once it stopped, I helped the cook make chapatis. Chapati-making in the Himalays - one for the books. 

The view from our tent
Making chapatis in the Himalayas
The final day of our trek was more like a suicidal downhill obstacle course to the "Lost Village" of Malana. Trekking agencies market this village brilliantly, convincing tourists that its inhabitants are mysterious people who have protected their way of life for centuries, and that outsiders are asked to respect the culture and way of life by staying away. As an anthropologist, I was thrilled by the thought of visiting such a place, enchanted by the idea of being allowed a glimpse into the lives of this community. 
The summit. With Hindu offerings; houses for the gods.
After reaching the summit of our trek, we came to what seemed the end of the trail. There was nothing but hill. Downhill. It was such a steep decline, you could not see the trail below. This is when our guide became my hero. Had that man not held my hand the whole four hours down the mountain, around loose plants and shifting rocks, I would still be there, crying. Yes, I cried like a baby. My legs felt like jello, my toe nails felt like they were going to fall off (and two of them did, later). When we finally reached Malana, I was exhausted, and for the first time in my life, I felt like I might know what it's like to have a body that doesn't work properly. My brain would tell my right leg to move, but it was so tired, so destroyed, that it wouldn't respond. 

Despite the pain, I grabbed on to that romantic idea of seeing the "lost village" of Malana. What a disappointment.

The sad reality is that Malana has become a shitty little town inundated with trash, and subsists from the sale of a special kind of marijuana that grows in this part of the Himalayas. I know nothing about marijuana, but apparently this kind is super intense. Weed-smoking backpackers are everywhere in Malana, high as kites. I was disgusted by them and because I saw young Malana girls harvesting leaves to sell to these tourists. Shitty Malana. Shitty tourists. The pain of the descent to reach this village was not worth it. All I felt was sadness that centuries of a culture ended up as a haven for cheap, dirty, drug tourism. After reaching the road where our car would meet us to take us back to Manali, I sat for a few moments and cried. My hero guide did his best to alleviate my pain by saying "don't worry, men also cry." That made me laugh. 

Looking back, I'm very glad my husband and I celebrated his 40th on the Himalayas. It was a first for me to sleep in a tent, to trek up and down a mountain, and to cook in the middle of a Himalayan forest. The stunning views are so incredibly beautiful, I don't think I could describe them in this blog entry. Even though I hold a special memory of this off-the-beaten-path experience, I think I'm still an at-least-three-stars kind of girl, and I'll always opt for the kinds of places the rest of our India trip had to offer. This luxury, coupled with glimpses of the not-so-perfect Indian life, made for a wonderful trip.

India is a place of contrasts, and I think we managed to witness a few of these contrasts during our trip. Lots more to see, however, and I can't wait to return.
Sunset in the Himalayas