Monday, May 24, 2004

The election season is over in India, and so is our visit in a matter of hours. For those keeping score at home, Sonia Gandhi and the Congress Party won the national election; though up in Dharchula, our district managed to bet on the wrong horse, and switched its allegiance to the outgoing BJP.

Then in a bit of winning strategy that reminds one of hanging chads circa 2000, Sonia stepped aside -– despite the apparent mandate to become Prime Minister –- and appointed a fellow named Manmohan Singh in her stead to run the show. It's a twist which the Indian press has lauded as transforming the Italian-born Congresswoman from politician to states-person extraordinaire.

If your looking for more analysis, though, look elsewhere. Tehelka, an Indian newsweekly with a decent website, would be one option; the Economist has Mr. Singh on the cover; and our friend Scott Baldouf, the South Asia chief of the Christian Science Monitor, has done an estimable job of tackling the issue for American readers. No time for links: Search 'em up yourself.

Me? As we prepare to return home, my thoughts remain stuck in the outrageous, mundane and surreal scenes that I've witnessed in India these past few months. I'm just hoping that conventional wisdom might prove as wrongheaded in America come November as it was in India this spring.

Beyond my trekking and adventuring, the pure travel aspects have left me once again astonished that while 70 percent of India lives in rural agricultural communities I can still come to Delhi and shop for Adidas and dine at Pizza Hut. The former is a figurative statement, but that latter I'm sorry to report is for real: It's one of our guilty urban ex-pat pleasures to down a few beers and a slab or two of greasy cheese-topped bread. What other reward could there be for the meals of dried goat curry and endless rice and lentils in them thar hills?

Just the same, for all the modernity of the Big City, you'll find the lepers and beggars that occupy popular images of India persisting in the Capital. This helps explain how it was that the popular BJP lost the election -– by insisting that India was "shining" in the face of heavy evidence to the contrary. This poverty, in turn, along with power outages and the challenge of finding clean drinking water (the daily papers carry constant tallies of cholera and typhoid cases in Delhi) even in upscale neighborhoods seem impossibly out of synch with the new emphasis on consumer goods and the growing and ostentatious tastes of India's middle class.

The other night, we sampled a bit of this cultural zeitgeist when we stepped out to a new nightclub to witness a young friend's DJ show. I was hoping against hope that we might at least witness some state-of-the-art spinning as the tiny dance floor filled to a thumping mix of Punjabi bhagra and hip-hop beats. But it was mostly a matter of matching tracks, with little improvisation, as Delhi's young and the restless twenty-somethings shook their tail feathers. Dressed to the 9999s, or maybe just the 77/88s, the crowd drank with abandon and smoked their ciggies with the flair of immortal youth everywhere in the world.

With the cabbies sleeping on charpoys within shouting distance of the club doorway, there was no need to question the disparity between rich and poor hereabouts. C and I made our early departure –- no room for old fogies to boogie -- but I couldn't escape the feeling that escapism poses a real threat to India's democracy. (I was hoping to capture some of the fun, but I seem to be stuck one in the role of self-important Ernest. I told you to look elsewhere for political analysis didn't I?)

Maybe my brain is just cooked after dealing with the Delhi heat, a constant 110 for two days after a spike of 115 Fahrenheit. Monsoon has begun to visit the South, but the rain is still at least a month away from here. Then, again, we'll be back in the States by the time monsoon reaches Delhi.

We've got a non-monsoon wedding to attend for my brother (and our own brand new bag, packed with Bollywood tunes and, yes, a few bhangra beats...) before heading home to Texas. Come to think of it, this heat is good practice for heading home. Otherwise, stay tuned and stay cool.

I'll be back as I can to retrace more of my Indian steps.

Sunday, May 23, 2004

When the votes were cast for the recent national election, I was in the Uttaranchal Himalayas, taking in the scenery amid the goatherds and eagles on my way to Kuari Pass at some 12,000-feet. My guide, an old man named Korn Ram Martolia, understood most of my instructions regarding the timing of this trip -- "More than a week, wife mad, both in trouble!" -- and sped us along a few short cuts to knock out the rough 40-plus-mile trip in seven days. Given that the guidebook says to give yourself 10 days to make the pass, I'd say we did pretty well.

Which is not to say that Martolia and I complete mutual understanding. His Hindi was of the mountain variety, and his English of the nonexistent kind. My own Hindi has come along way in the past few months, but my comprehension is sadly lacking. Standing on ridgelines, with Martolia using his bamboo staff to point out the route like mad professor tracing equations on a gigantic chalkboard, I played the role of doubtful student:

Doubtful because I could not fully understand what he was saying. Doubtful because he seemed to be suffering from emphysema, and I wondered if the trip would kill him; doubtful because I had left C in Dharchula with a mere two weeks to our intended departure date, and expected 10 days walking on top of three days of sick and twisted bus rides through the mountains. Just spank me and change my name to Thomas.

Remarkably, though, even from the start the old man had everything well in hand. This was clear from the get-go, when we met with a Nepali road-building crew blasting the cliffside a mere 2 miles from the trailhead. The rocky improvised steps were coated with a silica-slick powder, but Martolia never looked back. He offered his hand as I pressed myself against the wall, afraid to look down the 1,000-foot chasm below. Though I didn't take it, I knew from experience that this was a guide used to working snow.

We wouldn't reach Kuari Pass for a few days, yet, but my suspicion following spring rains was that we'd find plenty of the white stuff.

We saw a few goat-like ghorals, a Himalayan deer, at the outset of the trek, and the weather that followed was the perfect mountain combination of bright blue skies and the occasional breeze. The hiking itself was tough, especially with me hauling a gallon of water and my tent, while Martolia totted the ice axe and food, as well as a pressure cooker and the primitive kerosene stove preferred by mountain professionals around these parts.

Up and down, and up again, reaching a sequence of passes rising from 8,000 to 10,000 finally to approx. 12,400 feet at Kuari Pass. The trek meanwhile carried down to rough and tumble river basins, where whistling thrush and white-capped redstarts darted through the whitewater. The views were great, the forests filled with some of the biggest trees I have seen in the Himalayas, and the workout astonishing as the higher altitudes robbed my lungs of much needed oxygen.

Martolia plodded on despite a hacking cough and lungs that sounded as though they'd been stuffed with cotton. I kept expecting to find the 60-year-old dead around the next bend, but he'd be sitting and smoking his fragrant "bidi" cigarettes whenever I caught him. Though lifetime expectancy for these mountain men may be short, there are obvious advantages to living in the high ranges of South Asia. Still, Martolia bragged on my pace whenever we met one of his fellows in the backcountry.

That was probably my most severe complaint about the whole wonderful bleeding trip: The population pockets we found, even sought, at each turn. Rather than carry full provisions, Martolia preferred to barter and buy along the route. So I found myself sleeping in sheep camps with barking dogs that eliminated the peace and quiet of the mountain nights. Wildlife was spare thanks to these vicious dogs, and the hidden villages of the upper Kumaon region generally offered subpar accommodations -- I had one miserable bed-bug night, and Martolia regularly quelled his midnight coughing fits with a smoke --we were obliged to take because my guide didn't care for sleeping outside.

To wit, I don't know if you can call a cow bell a "cow bell" when it's attached to a pony, but there was one night when some packer's ponies decided to make our tent an ornament on their dining table. The constant ringing of the bells through the night just outside my tent nearly drove me to tears. Per usual, Martolia woke me at 5:30.

The hard hikes up and over the mountains, and down into the deep valleys, wore me down and forced heavy sleep upon my eyelids despite these annoyances. The pattern of sunrise and sunset in the mountains, however, allowed me to maintain a state of near bliss.

The only anxiety I was left with -- especially after my Dodi Tal trek -- was whether I'd face a snow-flanked pass and how I would fare when we reached Kuari Pass. As it turned out, the challenge was mostly in reaching the pass.

Our last night in the wilderness, we slept at my favorite site of the trip, outside an old saddhu cave overlooking a lovely gorge with a creek running down its heart. I was pestering Martolia to make time, but on this final day before Kuari he insisted that we quit after a mere four hours hiking. "Must be a tough day tomorrow," I thought. "Snow's gonna be rough; we'll set out early to beat the thaw...."

True to form, Martolia had me up before 6, bringing tea to me in my sleeping bag. We looked up to the distant pass, where three herds of dirty sheep and shaggy goats were already climbing. Again, Martolia used his staff to point the way -- although for all I understood, he could have been saying: "When we're done, you'll fly home to the US, reaching on May 25." -- and I nodded in appreciation. Certain was I that we'd make the first pass, and then climb to the snow line and eventually descend to the as-yet-unseen meadows on the far side. We reached what I took to be the end of the first stage (with barely a puddle of snow in sight) and Martolia surprised me by asking for a photo against the dramatic fan of mountains that came into view.

"I'll shoot you at the pass," I huffed. Imagine my surprise when he explained that this was the famed Kuari Pass! We'd reached, and we'd spend the rest of this day traversing a snowless circe. I whooped, and happily shot Martolia's photo. Anticipating more difficulty, I was ready to extend the trip, but the calendar told me it was time to head for home. That was a little over a week ago.

First, I returned to Dharchula; now, I'm in Delhi. We've been in India's capital city for all the election weirdness here, something that will wait. The mercury has been pegged well above 100-degrees F for the past five days, which adds to my impression that India may well be the most surreal place I've spent time.

But we're outta here right quick -- in a day and a half I fly out for NYC. With luck, I'll knock out a final round of impressions from this vantage point, and maybe add a little more when stateside.

(Please don't fret dear readers, friends and others who have tuned in for this round of reflection -- if nothing else, we'll have another chance to visit in India come October, when the next round of research and "research" begins. I'll be in touch.)

Sunday, May 02, 2004

In India as in America, election season is heating up. But on the subcontinent instead of having an April offensive to spice things up, distractions arrive in two distinct forms – a much ballyhooed cricket contest between arch-rivals India and Pakistan, playing in Pakistan and on common ground for the first time in about a dozen years; and endless weddings. Boosting the moral of the leading Indian politicians, who largely belong to the Hindu fundamentalist party known as the BJP, India pulled off a couple of squeaky wins this spring to win the Friendship Cup, which in turn has been seen as a diplomatic coup of sorts.

By contrast, the wedding season, which peaked a couple of weeks back with the most auspicious day for getting married, according to astrologers, in 70 years, seems to foment political debate. Locally, we’re daily bombarded by the dueling sounds of the BJP and Congress Party loudspeakers and the springtime wedding drums. Here in Dharchula, weddings call for the local tribes to make a military-style dancing parade armed with swords and small shields. It’s a reference to the tradition of stealing wives from neighboring villages – as opposed today’s arranged marriages

Fresh-slaughtered goat meat and the boom-boom-boom of the occasional Bollywood soundtrack remix are an added wedding bonus.

Pretty much starved for stateside political news, meanwhile, I find myself quizzing shopkeepers and our casual friends about their political leanings. The BJP has been in power for about 10 years, led by a man named Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who I have heard referred to by his detractors as “the Toad.” Basically, this is the bunch that liberalized business in India, reforming the quasi-socialist system established post-Independence (1947) and opening up international business markets. This is one reason why not only do you now find Coke and Mountain Dew in remote mountain villages, but also why Bangalore and Bombay are touted as cyber-centers in the US papers.

Notably, the BJP has also played on religious tensions in India, gaining power in part by baiting Muslims; ironically, Vajpayee at age 79 clearly sees standing peace between largely Hindu India and Islamic Pakistan as key to his legacy. Hence, the cricket diplomacy. That the US is now a firm Pakistan ally is notable.

On the other side of the ballot, you’ve got India’s scandal-ridden grand old Congress Party, led by the Italian-born Sonia Gandhi. The name is not connected to famous Mahatma Gandhi, though the party is through its founding father Jawaharlal Nehru, who was the actual father of slain Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and her assassinated son, Rajiv, husband to the widow Sonia. Got it? Suffice it to say that this is a dynasty that rose to power on the promise of equality for all Indians, regardless of caste or religion, but which has lost its way amid India’s culture of corruption.

Currently, the Congress’ ideology is as bankrupt as Enron, but to this foreign observer there is little that distinguishes India’s major parties. Unfortunately, the Communists who remain popular in some parts of India are unheralded in the mountains of Kumaon.

Course, it ain’t all politics. We finagled a wedding invitation the other night, and joined an extended family nearly 500 strong in witnessing the nuptials of a young couple belonging to the local tribes. The party was a good one, as the groom’s side came marching up the street dressed in their traditional white robes, wielding swords, and dancing behind a couple of drummers pounding a fierce beat. As the parade reached the tented courtyard where the bride and her family waited, the drums grew louder as the two families faced-off in a mock battle with some of the more inebriated guests tussling harmlessly in the shadows.

A feast of rice and beans and mutton soup followed, with a massive group of guests sitting on the floor. The men sat close to the front of the colorful tented enclosure decorated with a patchwork of Chinese sitting carpets and ringed by plastic chairs, while the women sat in the back of the make-shift wedding hall. This separation and the somewhat chaste impression given by the bride and groom lent the proceedings the air of a junior high-school dance, although the number of drunken uncles in attendance soon obliterated that feel.

Because C and I are something of local celebs in Dharchula, we enjoyed a not-so-rare bit of extra attention, collecting stories of past family deeds and misdeeds, including the fact that apparently the bride and groom are distant cousins. Cognizant of this fact, the parents initially resisted what was termed locally a “love match” (as arranged marriages still hold sway through most of the country) but eventually the parents relented when it became apparent the kissing cousins intended to do what they want. We assiduously avoided the sweaty room where a band of liquored-up local boys were getting jiggy to Bollywood beats.

With so much going on, I still found it possible to take a short hike this week, although nearly continuous thunderstorms have disrupted my plans for a more substantial trek. Thanks to frothy clouds, I have had no chance to catch a glimpse of Tibet. Still from high above the valley of our adopted home, I witnessed the wide-open spaces found here in the Himalayas so often obscured by the green-gray hills that limit our views to the river and sky, blocking out the rest of the landscape. I’m hoping that the weather breaks before monsoon starts in earnest so that politics, sports and marriage recede in my focus to be replaced by Indian wilderness.

After all, I’ll be home before May’s out to attend my brother’s wedding, rejoin my Austin soccer club and catch up on John Kerry’s chances against the Bush 2.0 war machine. For now, upon reflection, such distractions can wait.