Tuesday, May 19, 2009

The Dynamite Boys and other stories

Greetings! Lots of stories, so this letter is a little longer than usual. Print it out if you're keen or just delete it. And good luck when I get back and quiz you on the contents.

My traveling partner, Nani, and I just returned from three and a half weeks of trekking, if you can call it that, in the Himalayan mountains. If you were hard-core, which we're not, you could do the same amount of walking in less than half the time. The walk starts around 4,600 feet elevation (1,400 meters) and reaches 12,000 feet (3,660 meters) at the highest point, just in front of the Pindari Glacier. The scenery was spectacular, the highlight of which is probably the 23,000 feet peak (7,000 meters) towering overhead. That height isn't particularly impressive in this region, even though you can't find a peak that high anywhere in the world outside of Asia. We discovered that sitting on our butts in meditation isn't very good training for trekking, and it was a little tough going at first. I think back to my muy macho power marches around the Himalayas back in the day, and pretend that it's my new mellow outlook that slows me down, rather than a bum knee and advancing years. We got stronger as we went, though, and acclimatized to the altitude.

In the first town, at the end of the road, we heard HUGE explosions, and were told that a new road was being built into the valley. A local said they were using "bombs" to build the road - dynamite is the technical term. The road crew was just above our guest house, and a couple of times we heard an explosion and saw big boulders flying through the air. I thought it would be interesting to see how they blow up rock to build roads, since I've never seen it - in the West it's considered too dangerous to let bystanders mill around. In India, they have a different standard. As we walked toward the site, Nani said, "In my view of the world, you walk away from dynamite blasts, not towards them!" We came around a corner and saw a 16 year-old kid tamping down the dynamite into a drilled hole in the rock. I wondered how hard you can hit dynamite with a steel rod before it explodes. Walking away seemed prudent at that point. There was a 200 or 300 meter slide of rock and dirt that the explosions and a backhoe created, and at one point we had to walk across the tail of it, timing our crossing to avoid the car-sized boulders that were periodically rolling down the hill. The equivalent of a flagman was a young Indian kid way at the top of the slide keeping an eye out and casually shooing us away when our timing was bad.

Almost half of the time we were gone we were based in the little village of Kathi, which has 60 houses and about 450 rather rough-looking residents. The peculiar particulars of that village turned out to be at least as interesting as the hiking, and its mysteries unfolded slowly over the days. What's apparent to virtually anyone that travels in India is how much time Indian men sit on their butts drinking chai and talking, while their wives are busy doing about 90% of the combined work. The men of Kathi, though, should win some kind of award. What you'll see in my photos is reflective of daily life - the men hang out and chat, mostly, while the women work in the fields, tend the water buffaloes and cows, gather firewood, do the laundry by hand, and cook. Men generally work only during planting and harvest. You think that's bad, but you haven't heard the next part: it's part of Hindu scripture that menstrual blood is "unclean," so for the five or so days that a woman is on her period, she's required to sleep in the first floor of the house, where the water buffalo is kept. She cleans out a little spot and can't come up to the house during that time. I mentioned this to some affluent and educated Indian tourists, and they said that the equivalent happens all over India - though many wouldn't have animal's quarters to banish Mom to. But this young man told me that he and his father always cooked meals during that time of the month. Women also aren't allowed into Hindu temples while they're on their period.

So, I thought that was shocking, then I heard this Kathi custom: because the blood is considered unclean, women are required to give birth in the same animals quarters, and they deliver the baby by themselves, with only the verbal counsel of other women. The other women aren't allowed to physically help, if you can imagine that. (I can't - I was skeptical when I first heard this because it's so incredible, but I confirmed it from several sources.) Almost as a side note, the mother uses a special ceremonial knife to cut the umbilical cord, which is usually rusty. As a result, the baby that was born while we were there developed a nasty infection - and the nearest doctor is a long day's walk plus a three hour drive. After the glorious birth, in the cowshed, Mom and baby are required to stay downstairs for 11 days before they can come up to the living quarters of the house. (It reminds me of Kaiser Permanente's motto: "Only the strong survive.") On the 11th day, a Hindu priest from another village comes for a "puja" or religious ceremony, and the priest actually chooses the name for the baby, without input from the parents. Wow.

Big changes are underway in Kathi. The road will bring buses and jeeps, along with doctors and teachers and hopefully more tourists into the village. It was remarkable to not hear a car horn for close to a month, and I, for one, have misgivings about a road. But I don't get or deserve a vote. There will be real benefits (and real costs, no doubt) for the progress this brings. When I was on the same trek three years ago I saw a pregnant woman being carried by a group of young men, sitting in a chair that had long poles strapped to either arm of the chair. For hundreds of years this has been the only way, other than a horse, to get someone who can't walk to a doctor. In fact, it's the large population of mule drivers who may be affected the most negatively, as their job just goes away. Kathi doesn't have electricity yet, though a delightful Australian couple who have spent a lot of time there in the last few years just installed simple solar systems in each of the 60 homes, all donated by a charity. Electricity is rumored to be on the horizon, too, which will be convenient for the eight homes that already have televisions. They have to run them on generators, powered by kerosene that's been brought in the backs of mules. And just 10 days before we arrived, a cell phone company installed a phone with some kind of repeater that allows it to work in the valley. Within two weeks, there were a total of eight phones installed.

Kathi is said to be relative well-off, but the economy is a little hard to figure out. There are big fields planted, but all the crops are for animal feed. The water buffalo, though, are of such low quality, or so they say, that they don't give enough milk to sell. Most houses use Nestle milk powder for their chai, which is pretty much heresy in chai-centric India. The older folks almost all have some sort of government job, and sometimes they even have to show up at work. The younger generation mostly want to be guides for tourists, even though there were so few tourists in the valley that we always knew not only who they were but where they were and when they were likely to come back from the glacier. One day we heard lots of arguing in the town and found out that it was about a mountain herb that is gathered to sell to traders for the Chinese market for, what else, "make strong like bull," if you get my drift. Since it sells for a whopping $5,000 per kilo ($2,300 per pound) it's worth getting upset about, when typical daily wages are $3 or $4.. (Two years ago it was sold for $20,000 per kilo.) Only certain people have the government-issued permit to gather the product, and tensions were high. A few days before the season officially opened, we saw several young men heading into the forest, "going for a walk" - when a Kathi man has never gone for a recreational walk in his life. They were out scouting for the herb, the bastards. There is also a frog that's found in the ponds near glaciers that sells for $4,000 each.

There was a lot of talk about leopards, because they'd killed something like six or eight head of livestock in the previous two weeks. We saw a desiccated water buffalo that had been killed by a leopard the previous year. There was discussion of whether it could have been tigers, but that was unlikely since they had become rare in the area. But you know what, when a kid from a neighboring village gets killed by a leopard, the story makes the rounds. Suffice to say that we had leopards on the brain when we went for a day hike, and after hearing a noise, Nani was sure we were looking at one far down the hill below us. It was an odd critter, but I thought it was about the size of a big squirrel. Nani swears it was more the size of a well-fed poodle. We were trying to figure out what it was, and I asked Nani to move across the ridge a bit to get a different angle, as we peered down the steep hill. A minute later I looked over at Nani, and she's facing the opposite direction. "Dave! There's a leopard in those bushes! I'm serious! I can see it's tail!" I took a step towards it to get a picture and she thought that was about as smart as walking towards dynamite. She said she was scared and I said, seriously, "Just use your walking stick if it comes at you." (I think the altitude might have affected my judgment.) Anyway, a big langur monkey, much larger than a poodle but less aggressive, and with an impressive tail, jumped out of the bush and into a nearby tree. We found out later that people from Kathi live their entire lives without ever seeing a leopard, so we felt lucky  to have almost seen two in five minutes.

Nani and I have train tickets for tomorrow night to head towards Spiti Valley, just south of the Ladakh area, and similarly dry and out of the monsoon belt. It's not supposed to be monsoon yet, but it's raining hard daily, and there have been some spectacular thunderstorms. One of the teachers from the last retreat is coming into this small village of Kasardevi (just near Almora,) so we're considering changing our plan. Either way, I'll keep you posted. Thanks for hanging in on this long letter!

More photos than usual, on Google Photos (96 if you're counting):