We just got back from a 6 day trek through the Himalayas. More than anything I would like to post pictures, but the guy in the internet cafe is watching me closely. He has posted a big sign above my computer that says in friendly bubble letters, 'PICTURE UPLOADING' and then beneath it in very serious, wanted poster letters, 'IS NOT ALLOWED'. I'll just have to try to make pictures in your brains using words until we get out of this town.
First off, Leh, where we now are, is geographically connected to Tibet rather than India. This means we have all the traditional Tibetan surroundings and faces without the intense persecution and political imprisoning that goes along with modern day Tibet. 1000 year old, 6 story castles stand on every hilltop, in various states of disrepair and use. The landscape is more or less barren. Rocks and dirt lay at the foot of towering mountains of dirt and rocks. The landscape is the monstrous lower jaw of the earth, unbrushed, brown, jagged teeth rising up to scrape the sky, with only the occasional piece of spinach wedged in the cracks. The towns here are reminiscent of photos you have seen of the middle east. Brown, boxy mud huts that echo the early morning wails of muezzins (why there are muezzins here I don't know as the people are predominantly Buddhist). The air is clear and the sun is warm.
So, our trek.
We started out with a pocket full of homestay vouchers, a topographical map, one French Canadian with a sprained ankle, one other French Canadian, and a gallon of water each. The water is necessary as much for thirst quenching as for mental health. Hiking through endless mounds of dirt can cause panic if you don't have the weight of all that water bearing down on your shoulders to remind you that you wont shortly die of thirst. The sun bakes down with that high altitude intensity that quickly chars flesh but goes easily unnoticed in the comparatively cool, thin mountain air. I tied my red and white checkered scarf around my head, Arabian style, threw on a pair of over sized sunglasses that nod to the 70's, and rubbed down with coconut scented sunscreen. Early morning, we all started walking.
Mia and I held the lead the entire way. We like to do that thing where we are the American team competing with other groups (that don't know they are involved) in small Amazing Race type competitions. In this race we were up against our own French Canadian friends, a group of pack horses, their accompanying campers, and some overweight French trekkers. This kept our pace rapid. The horses were the worst to be close to, as they all have bells on which cut up the otherwise peaceful chirping sounds of mountain penguins and yellow beavers.
The trail starts over dunes of rock and eventually works its way into a cleft between two mountains, where the mighty Indus river has eroded a deep, almost Grand Canyon-like gorge. With a commanding lead, Mia and I were free to converse in peace most of the way. Only once we were interrupted by the carrying voices of rafters far below, who were making up for their dull, 2 mile per hour, non whitewater rafting trip flop by yelling, "WHOOOOOO! EX-TREME!" as loud as they could. After a good 7 hours of trekking the canyon opened up into a lush green valley. The surrounding hills were dotted with wild mountain goats and the grass below was crowded with assorted livestock grazing alongside wild asses. Anyone who gets sick of straining their eyes to look at the distant mountain goats can get a close and personal look at them over the doorway of almost any home, where their lopped and rotting heads hang in various forms of decay or preservation. It is a local tradition leftover from the pre-Buddhist religious practices. This wasn't nearly as creepy as the tangle of rope and rabbit heads that hung like an otherworldly spiderweb above the door of one house we stayed at.
The houses, for the most part, were amazing. Built of adobe brick, stone and logs, they stood two to three stories tall and were surrounded by ruins of older homes which are now used to house livestock. Our vouchers provided us with a room for the night, a bucket of boiled water in which to bathe, breakfast and dinner. Our rooms contained mattresses on the floor and little tiny tables that were about a foot high. Because these people are still very tiny (I swear some would need to be on tiptoes to clear 4 feet) the doors are only 4 -5 feet tall and the ceiling in some were not much higher, leaving me to feel a bit like Alice in wonderland after eating the mushroom. I actually once hit my neck on the ceiling after standing up from the toilet. My NECK!
Every home has a main room that serves as the living room and kitchen. The women collect copper teapots and silver cereal bowls as a form of BLING. It is their jewelry. Some of the houses had dozens of giant, elaborate tea kettles and hundreds of silver pots and bowls, proudly displayed along the walls on fine wooden shelves. We, however, were made to eat out of plastic Whinney the Pooh cups and Mickey Mouse plates that they kept in a Walmart rack in the corner. We were left only able to gaze in wonder at the shiny serving utensils,. Forced to imagine how it must feel to gently scrape a spoon along their polished surfaces to retrieve that final bite of rice and daal.
The children. The children. The horrible things we have seen. The three stories below will chill you to the bone.
Child one. 4 years old. He started out aloof, not even paying attention to us. When he finally did notice us the second day he just stared quietly for a moment and then broke into sudden, uncontrollable laughter for the rest of breakfast. Then he led Mia out to the front porch so she could watch him pee on it. We retired to our room for some packing and gathering of thoughts before setting out on our next leg of the journey. He arrived shortly after with a long, orange balloon which he repeatedly inflated and released. The room was filled with the sounds of gleeful shrieks, the "Screeeeee-PHHBBBBBth!" of the deflating balloon and the thick whooshing burbles of large quantities of snot being forced from his nose when the pressure in the balloon would trump that of his own lungs, and it would deflate forcefully into his skull. I didn't mind this nearly as much as Mia did, but when Stephane stopped by he pointed out that the balloon itself also contained a good half cup of snot at which point I escorted the young man from the room while unsuccessfully stifling my gag reflex.
Child two. The four of us were playing cards in our room on a lazy afternoon when the hiss of escaping aerosol turned our heads. A young man of 5 was emptying a large can of deodorant onto the glass of our closed bedroom window. We ignored it. Then the sound stopped. Seconds later it started again. An opaque cloud of white gas was now billowing in through a crack in the wooden door. Our tiny room instantly became a powder fresh gas chamber. I remember Stephane leaping to his feet yelling, "HEY!" I remember all of us pushing and shoving toward the door, toward breathable air. I remember the sounds of the screams of the little brother, on whom the blame was pawned by the older, evil one for this wicked deed while we stood outside our room with the windows all propped open. The older brother returned 10 minutes later with a steak knife and a balloon. (Where are these kids getting these balloons?) We watched nervously as he slashed widely at the balloon, which seemed to have an un-natural and unnerving attraction to the ground. Was this too filled with snot? I remained leaning casually against the adobe wall of the balcony, but covered my eyes and genitals in case the knife should come loose from his flailing hand. When he grew bored of this game he pinned the balloon down and murdered it. When he looked up, I took notice of the fact that he seemed to have burped cottage cheese out onto his chin. His eyes glistened with caged animal intensity. Isabelle correctly pointed out that he no longer had a balloon and was now just a kid with a knife so we quickly made our way back into the room and locked the door. But the WINDOW! He was against it, pressing it open with one hand to allow his knife hand easy entrance. It swung like a tiny flesh and steel pendulum, scraping against the walls and glass with a rhythm that was anything but soothing. We returned to our card game, huddled in a small group in the corner. With time everyone forgot about him. Only I saw when he returned an hour later. When he quietly pushed open the window. When he reached his hand through. When he opened it with a certain ghoulish grace, and onto our bedroom floor fell a single... long... rusty... screw.
Child three. This one can't be blamed. His grandmother was senile. He too peed on the porch, though this time Isabelle played the audience. Later we sat out in the front yard, enjoying the occasional shooting star and picking out constellations. He crept from the shadows into the eerie, electric glow of the porch light and crouched down pantsless. Diarrhea. We could hear it over the chirp of the crickets. We tried to ignore it but then another figure emerged from the shadows. His grandmother. A wrinkled shadow of a person herself, even during the day, she now took on a particularly creepy air. She clasped her hands before her chest, hovering over him on a raised portion of the yard. Her ancient, gravelly voice oozed out into the hot night air like thick, sour syrup. "Yessssssss. Yesssssssss," she moaned. "Crab walk while you pooooooop all over the froooont yaaard." The little boy obeyed. She rubbed her large, dry hands together, creating the sound of rustling leaves. "HUuhhhhhh, Huhhhhhh." Her breathing was heavy. Pooping and crabwalking. "Huuuhhhhhh." It was gross.
Crossing the pass, 16000 feet.
This was hard. There is not nearly enough air up this high. Not only did our breathing become labored on the 45 degree incline but the air became brutally cold and was compounded by intense winds whipping through the pass. It was a strange feeling to look down at my once mighty legs, legs that were strong and smooth like adolescent birch trees, legs that could dance me around a room like Micheal Jackson or kick furiously into the air while I laid on my back on the floor and pretended I was an astronaut, and see them almost unable to move. At 15000 feet my steps were shortened to about a foot at a time. By the time we reached the pass I was lucky to be pushing ahead in 6 inch intervals. They just wouldn't move. The only exception to this came when we took a rest break. After two minutes of sitting the fatigue became a distant memory. Like a schoolboy with a paper sack full of Lunchables and Oreos I would spring up and race along with a 3 foot gait and a bounce in my step. Wow, was I crazy to be going so slow before?! I feel wonderful! This hike is UHHHHHHH! UHHHHHHHH! Huge, sucking breaths replaced all thought as my body tried to deliver enough oxygen to my brain and carelessly overworked muscles.
We made it to the top, over, and down the other side. Picture a photo of Stephane, Isabelle, Mia and I huddled together with nothing but snow capped peaks stretched out behind us as far as the eye can see. We are bundled in every piece of clothing we had to stave off the cold. We are grinning from ear to ear.