Friday, March 12, 2004

For all the talk lately of India Shining -- it's election season here, and regarding the nation's economic outlook that's the incumbent message -- Dharchula might as well be in China. Or Nepal. Which makes some amount of sense, since D-town is a lot closer to these international boundaries than to the New Delhi seat of power. The mountains keep us hidden away. I arrived back a couple of days ago, after a long weekend in Delhi (where one example of India's shine was the garden at the President's Estate, open now for a month, while the magical flowers -- dahlia, bougainville, roses and many I don't know -- bloom).

Once again, I survived the mad jeep ride through the passes of the central Himalaya.

Meanwhile, the mornings ring with the echo of men and women breaking rock by hand for road improvements. The mountain air is tainted by the smell of woodsmoke, and -- worse -- burning plastic garbage. The streets are paved, barely, but you have to watch not to step into the narrow gullies that act as sewers. Cow shit is a problem. Electricity is sporadic and the water in our small half-a-house only runs four hours a day; at least we have an indoor squatter, I remind myself. Even so, Dharchula is a lot more charming than many of the places closer to the plains, but it's tough to believe that India is shining when so much is tarnished in these remote valleys.

Still, there's a simple pace to life here, which for me kicks off with coffee I've carried this far brewed and served on the roof. I take my book to be in the sun, and stretch in the early warmth of the morning. Yesterday, we had a brief thunderstorm pass through, which cooled the air and brought a few splashes of rain. Today, things are heating back up. C remains hard at work, spending her evening translating tapes of the Darma language, a local tribal dialect with no writing system of its own. I cook dinner, generally, which astonishes her young helper. How can a man cook, he wants to know. A man cooks when he is hungry, I explain, or waits too long for dinner -- my "wife" has more important work to do.

Darkness falls, and we hope that the feral dogs don't make too much noise. In the morning, the rock-breakers are up again. And so it goes.... Still, we have our health, and the work is going well. And if you make even the smallest effort, you can leave behind these scenes of unlikely congestion, and wander fields of grain and yellow-mustard flowers, and see the ghost of the community this once was.

Friday, March 05, 2004

I'm back to the big city of Delhi -- and I'd judge most aspects of my recent Karnataka-Goa swing a success. The adventures (rock-climbing, trekking, rafting) were all top-notch; for the most part I had a sweet young guide named Madhu, whose rubbery limbs belied untold strength. Still, after a few days of hard running, he was beginning to show a fair amount of wear and tear.

As I told him, I'm not fast, but don't worry because I can run a long, long time. That is just what we did.

Kicking things off in Karnataka, I was curious to see how things were shaping up in Bangalore, India's own Silicon City. This is the land of Gates and Windows, as in Microsoft, and the current outsourcing debate in the US presidential elections has serious implications for this gleaming town. According to the locals, the parallels with Seattle are more than just industry-related, as the city has grown by leaps and bounds over the past dozen years.

Even the Emerald City of the Pacific NW hasn't seen growth rates approaching 400% following America's Internet infatuation. But reportedly, the sleepy town of Bangalore, once home to somewhere around one million souls now approaches mega-city concentrations of nearly six million -- slums and so forth rarely included in the growth projections. With shiny new complexes going up at every turn, it was still difficult to ignore the epic traffic and quiet desperation of many locals being swept under by this tide of prosperity.

Remarkably, then, just down the road, you'll find more often than not Karnataka's villagers living in a rather traditional manner. Although there are some ugly scab towns, resettlement communities where displaced communities land when their homes have been swallowed by hydro-electric reservoirs, there are also happy little hamlets and temple towns aplenty. Religious tolerance is high through the hill country, so Hindus and Muslims (not to mention a few Christian families) still live in relative peace as neighbors; although in many cases, it was clear that the Hindus retain the upper hand.

Pilgrims coming to longtime holy spots reinforce the sense that India's majority religion more often than not shapes the character of local communities. Epic discussions on afternoon bus trips, long talks with guide Madhu and the occasional lodge lobby interrogation concerning Western religious beliefs reinforced my sense that people are still engaged in ancient practices. Among the centuries-old ruins Hampi, where I visited last month and returned last week, one old man even observed that the rocks might be speaking to me, calling me back.

Given the scenic beauty of the town and its surroundings, I couldn't argue with the fact that the landscape seemed to be echoing in my bones. I've been reading George Schaller's Stones of Silence, an excellent account of his Himalayan wildlife studies (he was the biologist who Peter Matthiessen joined in his classic memoir The Snow Leopard). Schaller notes in his pages that our response to landscapes reflects the gloamings of the inner-mind, tracing the self onto the outer world.

Hampi, which was important to not just Hindus, but the early Jains and Buddhists as well, with its constantly shifting light and remarkable collection of red-gold granite boulders, would seem to bear that out. The rocks change their appearance hourly, providing a magnificent backdrop to ancient temples, while the caverns and caves offer cool vacuums away from the heat and dust of the day. Up close, they provide a place to hide, but even at a distance the mind wants to trace their recesses. Such thoughts are the sort that linger when you've been traveling many hours by bus and train through unfamiliar landscapes.

With spiritual, religious and philosophical questions ensuing, the brain of a voyager becomes receptive to patterns not always evident on the home front. Safely in Delhi now, avoiding the chaos of Holi, a holiday of messy merrymaking (roughly the Hindu equivalent of Easter, only with people getting dyed instead of eggs) I'm perusing my conclusions and getting set to file my article. These mental meanderings, in turn, are mere clearings of the pipes.

As always, more to follow....