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Published: July 31st 2008
Sometimes you have to make do with what you've got...
There are certain moments a traveler never forgets. Many of them have to do with first laying eyes on something so wondrous that the image of that one magic moment is forever etched in a special place in the mind. The Grand Canyon is such a spot. So are geographic superlatives such as cycling along the Loire and seeing the waves of the Pacific Ocean crash into the Central American coast. Others are more elementary: I saw my first palm tree when I went to Spain and could not believe they existed except on postcards. It was about as far from New England sugar maples as I could conceive. Until my late teens, I thought oranges came in three-packs at the supermarket. When visiting a monastery in Toledo, Spain, I saw a tree bearing the bright fruit and wanted to go over and study it with naïve amazement. So entranced was I about the palm and the orange tree I fell behind the group tour and was mildly scolded for holding the others up. (It is no coincidence that was the last time I would ever be on a packaged tour.) I almost slid off my rent-a-scooter when coming into view
A wall to a Kalpa home...
of Santorini’s inner caldera. My earliest memory of the marvels of travel is throwing a snowball in July in the Rocky Mountains. Even to this day it makes little sense to put the words ‘snow’ and ‘July’ in the same sentence. For manmade phenomena, I could compose a long list, but some never lose their initial impression. The stained glass windows coupled with the accompanying live Gregorian chant of a chorus of nuns at the cathedral of Chartres is still unmatched when it comes to overwhelming emotion. Angkor Wat is the greatest structure ever built by humans and even after the second visit it was laborious to form words to articulate its power.
Enter Kalpa, little ol’ unknown Kalpa. The village itself is a joy, but what blocks out most of the morning and afternoon sun is what will stay with me for years to come. Yes, there are more dramatic, many higher, and far more steep. But there is no feeling like the inner tingling when eyes have been cast upon the greatest mountain range in the world, the Himalaya.
It is arresting, paralyzing. At nearly 18,000 feet, Kinner Kailash is a midget compared to its bigger cousins in
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Pakistan, Tibet, and Nepal. But it soars straight up from the Satluj Valley at such a sharp angle, its snow-capped presence is entrancing. Glaciers seem so close I could reach out and touch them. The water runoff rushes through pine forests and high-altitude meadows to the Satluj. Clouds encircle other peaks in the small but mighty range and shape a picture-perfect scene against which Kalpa is perfectly set.
The Himalaya hit me first when climbing the switchback roads up to Kalpa, a winding ride above the administrative center of Reckong Peo in the Satluj Valley. I was unaware that my face was pressed against the bus window until my nose was flattened against the pane of glass. It took me three full minutes to finally look away, just to turn back again to confirm what I had just previously seen was not imaginary. I was so worked up over the discovery I quickly turned around to see who else might be in awe. In fact, the other passengers were bored and many were dozing off. I dismissed how they had been living in Kalpa and the valet all their lives and Kinner kailash was as fascinating to them as grey
I get Hellos every time I pass by...
squirrels are to me. However, I held off grabbing the woman behind me by the lapels and screaming in disbelief while pointing to the highest of glaciers and peaks, “You get to wake up to that every day? Are you kidding me??!?”
In my three days in Kalpa, it has been nearly impossible to turn and stare at the Kinner Kailash and without declaring aloud that no artist’s imagination could ever conceptualize such a view. Much of the time the chain has been hidden by the weather. But whenever the peaks show themselves, even for thirty seconds, I consider it a privilege to be below them.
“Hello! Hello!” I cried out to a woman of the mountains carrying a walking stick in her right hand. She may as well have walked right off the set of Seven Years in Tibet. The chances of her understanding English were about as high as my running in the 4 x 100 meters for the Olympic team in Beijing. “Do you know the”, I over-enunciated in hopes this would help, “Kalpa Circuit House?” The confused look on her face said it all. She struggled to even repeat the name of the government hotel
From My Hotel Window
This is what folks in Kalps get too look at everyday....
that Tarun booked for me during our meeting in Shimla. Don’t worry, he said…they will be waiting for you.
The lady pointed up the hill and around a turn as if the follow a footpath. For the next twenty minutes, I found many closed buildings, another hotel, but no Circuit House. I gingerly made my way down to the village proper by the time dusk was setting in. I asked all who could understand me. One man selling household goods was very excited. “Yes, but it is a long w-”
I was exhausted, had already made a complete circle of Kalpa, and hadn’t eaten. I needed a place to fall down and someone to spoon feed me immediately.
“No,” I pled with him, “don’t say long.” My breathing was heavy. I was hunched over sucking in as much air as I could.
“OK” he replied obediently. “It is a short walk. To the top of the hill.” And he pointed into where the clouds were scraping the eastern horizon. I had already been up there, easily four-hundred feet up. My hunger and fatigue intensified. I retraced my steps up and cursed Tarun and his booking. A cow pranced past me
Fuel For Fire
Collecting it and hauling it is a daily chore...
down the steps. I made my way up through orchards and by boys picking apples. I finally found the Circuit House. It was shut down. Not so much as a light on or a car in the driveway. It was almost dark. Only then, exasperated, tired, drenched in a damp sweat, did it occur to me. I had not acclimatized myself and was lugging my thirty-eight pound pack all over the village. My knees were on the brink of giving out. I sucked in the thinning air to replenish oxygen to my aching muscles in my legs. At 9,000 feet, I hadn’t thought this through very clearly.
One of the hotels where I had stopped to get more confusing directions was not far from where I had just fallen over to recover. I made my way back along the road, a flat road, and gained lodging for the evening. All I wanted was a room, a bucket of water, and a hot meal. The boy at the White Nest welcomed me in limited English.
“You have a room?”
“Yes” was all he could muster. There were thirteen rooms from which to choose. Counting me as a guest, that would make, let’s see….thirteen rooms available to me. I took the first one he showed me and fell flat on one of the three beds in the sullen chamber. It was cool and stocked with thick quilts. I would sleep well here, that I knew.
From the prone position on the bed, I gasped, “How much for the room?” I was willing to pay Shimla prices for not having to move again for the next twelve hours. In my head I calculated the average speed of the bus journey as I awaited his answer. One hundred fifty miles in thirteen hours, including stops for meals, freight deliveries and kisses from Mom for the driver. Average rate of speed: thirteen miles per hour.
The young teen paused. He really thought about a price. It was off-season and he did not want me to walk away. After a few seconds, he gave me his offer. “Two hundred. That OK?” Five dollars. Yes, it would do.
“Fine. Thank you! Now…” I peered over to the hotels dining room. No sounds were coming from the kitchen. I needed to eat something and that would mean going for a walk. “Where is there a restaurant?”
“Ah!” he could answer this. Small victories at this point were welcome. Communication with him was a game of patience. Restaurant five minutes from here.”
“Is it open?” It is a question worth asking. I have been sent to restaurants before but never asked if they were open only to find them shut down or under renovation.
“Yes! Good place. On this road.”
“What is the name of the restaurant?”
“Yes, very good.”
“Oh, my name is-” I closed my eyes and ears to whatever he said. Even his cheerful demeanor could detect how grumpy I was.
“Wonderful.” I showered with a bucket of water a few degrees warmer than liquid nitrogen. The shave was painful, but I did not care. It was time to hunt for my meal. The road curved right, then left. Then came my next depressing moment. Little whoever-he-is back at the hotel never gave a few silly details. Like, for example, which way do I go now that the road splits three ways? One path leads into the village, the other straight along the terraced ridge, and the third up at a twenty-five degree angle. I was ready to quit, just go home. But wait, it’s two days to go back to Delhi.
Two men appeared along the middle option, not locals. They were dressed in mountain shoes and had cargo trousers like I did. Indians. And not from here, but with impeccable English. They sent me up to their hotel. Yes, the restaurant was open. Another shot of adrenaline came when they told me it was non-vegetarian. Good, I will eat something that once bled. Unfortunately the strongest drink they have is Pepsi. Two out of three. I’ll take it.
The menu was of standard fare and by the time the waiter came to my table (I was the only patron in spite of two others tables with a ‘Reserved’ sign on them, I rattled off about half the menu.
While holding up his pad, the waiter each time replied to the items I called out, “Sorry sir, but we have none of this tonight.” Not once did he suggest what there was. That was my job to ask. My internal tension mounted to new levels. I was infuriated, but held off from blowing my top. In the back of my mind….In order to win in India, you must surrender first.
I took a deep breath. “What do you have, then?” I inquired curtly. It was a tone I never use and I despise those who do. The waiter, used to dealing with demanding and rude upscale Indians, took no notice of my badgering him.
“Well, we have all of this, this, and this.” He pointed to the scant options. I went with the corn soup and chowmein. I begged for chicken, but the reserved tables had already placed their orders hours ago. Chinese noodles and corn soup it would be.
The two men roadside who had sent me to the restaurant walked up the stairs and took a seat at one of the reserved tables. They kindly greeted me and I smiled, adding sarcastically, You two are the ones who ordered my chicken. Their English was so fine that they easily caught my attempt at humor in spite of my rough pitch. I had eaten something. Life was getting slowly better. As the two from Chandigarh took their seats, they invited me over and offered me all the chicken they had before they would dig in themselves. Embarrassed, I refused. It was a long day, but I hadn’t really suffered. I cringe to think that I will have suffered at all in India when I have seen misery first hand for the past three weeks plus. It was a rough day, but no worse. The two were kind and empathetic. My ordeal was insignificant as I retold it. I felt mildly embarrassed, but for them it made for an entertaining story. They do not come across Americans at the base of the Himalaya every day. I was a novel interruption to their three-day getaway to the mountains.
The two Punjabis retired. While making notes on the day’s events, the mountains had disappeared in the darkness. A fierce wind cut through the darkness and seeped through the gaps between the weak wooden window frames of the government lodge. Alone in the restaurant the wind howled and made the same sound as a Scooby Doo villain. I put on my windbreaker, made my way to the lobby of the hotel, and went for the door. It was pouring. Without a word, I sat down and kept quiet in the lobby.
“Is there something I can help you with, sir?” asked the concierge while keeping an eye on the cricket match on TV.
“No, it’s OK. I’ll just wait for the rain to let up and I’ll go back to my hotel.”
“So, you’d like to get a room here for tonight then?”
I walked home in the rain. If I hadn’t brought my flashlight, it would have been harrowing.
Mainstream tourism is on the verge of claiming this traditional Himalayan village as its next victim. If it were any closer to Shimla, the sad metamorphosis to postcard icon would already be complete. In a few years, what I have come to immerse myself in will be a photographic memory trapped in a glossy brochure. Thankfully, Kalpa’s inhabitants resist. They do not embrace the likes of me, nor do they shun me. I am a harmless nuisance they just prefer go somewhere else. Deep down inside, even the most stringent of villagers knows these days are waning.
It’s all a matter of time; Kalpa’s fate is sealed. While sipping a lemon tea at a ramshackle restaurant hut, a German arrived into the village by bicycle from Reckong Peo below. As soon as I saw him, I decided I wasn’t going to like him. He dismounted from his top-of-the market mountain bike and did a full three sixty to take in where he had just arrived. In a bright polyester cycling shirt and black spandex pants, he pulled out a 35mm digital camera to snap some photos and took a seat next to me. The villagers surrounded the bicycle with much curiosity; it is about the most useless mode of transport in the Himalaya. A pogo stick would be more practical here. A few moments later, he ordered a coffee.
I didn’t dislike him because he was rude or self-centered. In fact, he was an affable guy. It was his physical conditioning that I found to be inhuman. At over 9,000 feet, he had just pedaled up steep hills from the valley below. He was not breathing heavily. In fact, it was hard to tell if he was breathing at all! He showed no hint of perspiration. For all I could tell, he had just awakened from a nap. From neck to ankles, his lean frame bulged with about two percent body fat. He was a perfect physical specimen.
“Let me guess, you are cycling around Himachal, right?”
“Yes!” he countered. “Tomorrow, I leave for Spiti!” Spiti is the most remote district of Himachal, dotted with high tundra plains and lonesome Buddhist monasteries. Foreigners are required to register for a permit before entering Spiti. “I am waiting for my friend to come to the hill, he was a little behind me. Do you see him?”
I had the better angle. There was no sign of him. Perhaps he collapsed and expired on one of the cliffs or abandoned you for a bus or pickup truck. “No, no sign of him.” Thirty seconds later, the long haired chap appeared, just a bit flush, but certainly not winded. The sight of the both of them made me recall my hike around Kalpa and how I tried to invoke sympathies from the Punjabis at the restaurant. Now I would keep quiet.
Both Germans were joyful and actively talking to villagers. They wanted to share, feel, and be alive. Two local men boarded each bike for a trip around the village and returned impressed with the technology built into each machine. They coveted the bicycles, symbols of a culture contrary to the one in which they live. Four French joined the table and while the seven of us sipped our hot drinks, we clashed with everything around us. It was so clear we did not belong though we were not causing an obvious disturbance. We bring with us new clothing, different music, and behaviors previously unknown to sensitive Kalpa. I fear in a short time shawls, headwear, and other cheap goods will be hanging from the doors and windows of the rough and rugged homes. Right below the textiles will be hand-painted signs in misspelled English. I cringe at the future.
Kalpa has its share of hotels, but no Internet cafés. Its sit-down eateries are worn. A shopkeeper in training to become a tout, jumped out of his chair and followed me on the way to the temple. “Sir, what country you?” He pried in a manner that was almost defensive, like he was trying this whole tout thing out for the first time to see if it actually worked.
“What country do you prefer?” I replied.
“Ah! Doyouoprefer! Nice country! Very beautiful! I like! You come to my shop buy here?” This guy would get eaten alive in Jaisalmer. His intrusion into my walk to the temple did not vex me as much as it flattened my spirits. The first stages of Kalpa contamination and eventual ruin from virgin Himalayan village began years ago. But the symptoms of modernity’s disease now show on its inhabitants. Though I fight the truth of it, the Germans, French, and I, however well-intentioned, contribute to Kalpa’s foretold demise. When the French got out of their jeep, I wanted them to leave. Not for any reason but to keep Kalpa pure. Then I bent my chin down to see myself in a burnt orange windbreaker and University of Connecticut baseball cap. How dare they come here? I had had Kalpa to myself as the only Westerner for two days. How dare they come and spoil my village?
How dare I?
I take a seat at the glistening white front steps of the modest Hindu temple. My breaths are deep not necessarily because of the altitude; after a day I have become acclimated. The mountain air in outer Himachal is untouched, superior to anything in Shimla or to the south. Water is directly potable, coming from the snowpack and glaciers above. It does not need to be treated. A paltry amount of litter spots the ground. It is not that the villagers are more environmentally conscious than anywhere else, rather there are fewer people. Motorized traffic is restricted not because of any regulation, but because there is so little of it. It took me a while to realize what was missing: no honking of car horns for the first time since getting off the plane in Delhi. Children wave hello on their way home from school, again smartly dressed in white tops and blue trousers. They do not need very much; they are content in the shadow of Kinner Kailash. Not one single person, child or adult, has asked for a single rupee. Kalpa has preserved its dignity.
The wind creates more noise in Kalpa than do humans. It drives the drizzle, wood smoke and distant murmuring of goats. The long but narrow, colorful flags of the temple on wooden poles flap rigidly. In Kalpa the Himalayan banners are almost never limp, as the wind blows ceaselessly. Porters haul goods throughout the hamlet without employing any wheeled assistance; they do not speak because there is no need. Leaden heavy clouds cover the peaks. Homes are solid in construction, of piled flat stones to which no mortar has been applied, and none is needed. Those same stones are carefully laid to make many of the roofs. One slab in placed underneath the next. The water rolls right off the dwelling. Women of each household hang laundry where the sun slaps against timber porches. Even the dogs are well nourished and all are anatomically correct. I span the village from left to right in search of a disturbance of any kind. Kalpa is imperfect as is anywhere else, but find almost nothing wrong with it either. Let’s hope it lasts.
A knock at my door in the hotel came at about nine in the morning. I had already been awake and was sorting out my day’s plans. I opened it to see the owner’s son and a large blue bucket in his right hand. He put it down, smiled, and waved. Then he placed some entangled, plastic coated wire in my hand. Never uttering a word, off he went. Inside was the laundry I left out the night before to be washed. It was still drenched. Water had collected at the bottom of the receptacle where my underwear was. I stared at the wire in my hand and deduced it was my job to do take care of the drying cycle. I asked for a wash to be done. My fault, I suppose: I never asked for them to dry my clothes. Even on a rainless day, it is humid in Kalpa. During my visit, cloud cover was the norm. I took the bucket to the bathroom sink and wrung out each item. My cheap red t-shirt bled as did my black polo shirt. Mysteriously, my briefs were not pink. After the wringing, I searched for a place to suspend the wire outside, where there was cover from the rain. Even in the cool morning, it was damp. The waves of clouds moving into the tree tops indicated there would be little sun for the time being. Finding no cover outside, I suspended the wire from one end of my room at a wall lamp and tied it around the base. Then I walked the length of the cord into the bathroom and made a knot with it around the dormant water heater. Each article of clothing fell over the wire. The underwear for which there was no room went over some other furniture.
The hotel was adding on a floor upstairs. At night the work crews were away. I moved the laundry to an area of open air between vertical log support rods and clumps of sprouting steel, but still away from the constant threat of a rain shower. With much attention to the heavier shirts, most of water from my clothing had re-entered the atmosphere. On the bus ride to Naggar, I wore what had not dried out completely, including my blue-green bath towel. The whole process from start to finish took more than two days.
“Hey Rich, would you like to join me?” I had already shared a few meals with Kaalu, a Delhian about my age, at the government hotel in Kalpa. He was ready to go and take on the mountains. He had on a light impermeable coat, leather brimmed hat, and carried a well varnished walking stick.
“Where are you off to?” It wasn’t a silly question. He could have been all decked out to skip around Kalpa for an hour or depart civilization for a few days. The former option would be much more to my liking. I hadn’t forgotten about the conversation we had the night before when he told me about the last time he was in Himachal over ten years ago. He had walked from Leh, in upper Kashmir to Lower Himachal…a twenty-day journey.
“Oh, just up the mountain there.” He pointed with his walking stick into the clouds. His final destination was hidden. I had seen the mountain yesterday. OK, I thought. I will be miserable, in pain, and be the target of Kaalu’s ridicule, but I knew I could do the hike. I’d have to pack some water and food, but it might not be all that bad. I’d come back and sleep like I had when I ascended the Pacaya volcano four years ago. It would hurt, but I was up to it.
“Can you wait for me to get back so I can get ready?”
“Sure” he came back without a hint of inconvenience.
“Great!” And I took off down the road.
Within a short time I was back to join up with him. “I cannot go with you” I said dejectedly and with much embarrassment, but not too much to tell him the story.
He looked down at my feet to see that I still had my sandals on. “But you cannot go with those shoes! Don’t you have a pair that-”
“Well, yes and no. I’m an idiot. A real big one.”
“What?” The answer made no sense to him.
“I, Richard, the one who travels and has much experience, went back to my hotel. I unsnapped my pack where I had secured the pair inside an exterior flap. They are perfect for walking in the Himalaya.”
“I put one shoe on and tied it. And then the next.” Kaalu became increasingly confused. I had two shoes. There were going on my feet. Fine, so what’s the problem? “When I stood up and walked around, the right foot ached enormously.”
“Oh,” he thought he understood, “you did not get the right size.” He found his conclusion appropriate and one that mildly disappointed him. How could someone make such a silly mistake? But it happens; we are all human. Yes, but my error was more boneheaded than he thought.
“No, you do not understand. I took off both shoes and held them up against the wall with the soles facing away from me. I dropped my chin into my chest when I realized that-”
I paused. I couldn’t spit it out. “That what? What?” Kaalu anxiously demanded.
“That Richard Incorvati, self-appointed expert in independent travel, master of preparation and detail when preparing for such endeavors…I had, well…”
“I bought two shoes of the correct size, but they were both for my left foot. I have no right shoe with me.”
Kaalu’s first reaction was a powerful gasping exhalation. Then he inhaled and laughed so hard he had to sit down. “You are definitely not going to write about this, right? No one needs to know!” Tears poured the corners of his eyes.
“No, I would never dream of it.”
As he walked away alone, he still hadn’t stopped his chuckling at my expert preparedness.
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