Friday, October 23, 2009

Goodbye Ganga

Today, we leave for Rajasthan, which shimmers a mere 20 hours of travel in the distance. It’s the last segment of our trip before the few days of free travel at the end, and the only part of our itinerary which I have never experienced before. Our trekking guide, Vipin, tells me that Rajasthan is where the tradition of burning widows alive on the funeral pyres of their husbands originated, and that many Hindu women there still wear full coverage, even within the home if guests are present. The stained and well-thumbed addition of Lonely Planet that I picked up in a café the other night assures me that Udaipur (the lakeside city in southeastern Rajasthan which is our destination) is “the most romantic city” in the state, if not the country. With thirteen vivacious young adults in my charge, I’m not sure if “romantic” is the setting we’re shooting for, but the prospect is intriguing nonetheless.

We ended our stay at the orphanage here in Rishikesh with a blowout Diwali celebration, complete with an impressive (and potentially lethal) fireworks display on the Ganga beach. I sat in the sand with two little Nepali girls snuggling in my lap, shrieking in delight and making up rhymes for the different explosions of color (“Green, green, you are mean! Yellow, yellow, you are a buffalo!”). It was incredibly sweet, and such a balm for the five munchkin-sized void in my heart in absence of my nieces and nephews. The kids labored all day to prepare a Diwali feast of kheer, poori, salad, cooked vegetables, and dal. It was chaotic and delicious… and made the seven days to follow a distressing fugue of gastrointestinal ailments for the entire group (what could a five year-old know about sanitizing raw vegetables?).

Dawn saw two students hollow-eyed from a night of vomiting and diarrhea, but they insisted that they were well enough to make the 10 hour trip to our trekking base of operations. Partway through the interminable bus ride, yet another student was dangling out a window regurgitating all over the side of the bus, while still another evacuated helplessly by the side of the road. By the time we rolled into Joshimath, where we would spend the night before our first trekking day, the next victim stumbled off the bus just in time to lose the contents of her stomach in a drainage ditch, and one more stood trembling in blanched trauma, unable to lift her bag or articulate the intestinal clamor in her gut. The three five-hour hiking days at altitude looming ahead seemed to slip out of my grasp- I had done the trek already, and since it was clear someone would need to stay behind with the infirm, I braced myself to love the snow–capped peaks from a yearning distance, while my co-leader ascended with the rest of the group.

Only, as it turns out, my co-leader was off his feed as well, and reluctant to take his compromised system (and the nine ticking time bombs of the rest of the group) up to 14,000 feet. Feeling more than a bit shaky myself (yes, I had the salad), I still felt a stab of joy when I woke up to cloudless skies and soaring peaks and realized I was going up after all. I don’t want to make this a tale of woe. Yes, all but two ended up falling ill up in the mountains, wrestling on the trail and in their tents with intense abdominal pain, nausea, and diarrhea with varying degrees of stoicism. There were 2am ibuprofen and electrolyte doses to be doled out, and more than one chorus of “This is miserable- I want to go home!” reverberating in those alpine meadows, but no one was immune to the incredible beauty of the Himalayas in late fall, and we more than made it through.

Though we’d passed multiple signs indicating that we were firmly in the territory of the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (being only 30K or so from the Tibetan border), the truth of it settled in as we gazed down from our first summit above treeline, and saw fatigue-clad swarms of soldiers executing military drills with rocket launchers on their shoulders in the meadow below. We even hiked among them for a few disconcerting kilometers, and two of them requested a female student and I to pose so that they could take pictures of us on their cell phone cameras. Something about a man in uniform makes me want to apologize, or confess to all of the stop lights I’ve ever coasted through, but it certainly does not make me want to say “No”. If there is an airbrushed body pasted onto my chilled and ruddy face in some Indian Army fundraising calendar, so be it.

As our guide, Vipin, was of somewhat more durable moral fiber than our head man last year, I was free to let him coax the plodding infirm from the rear, while I stayed with the more hale front contingent. Our “peak attempt” at Kuari Pass ended up being a parade of dark horses. Five of the nine I’d taken on the trek were too ill to attempt it, and hiked straight to the next camp, leaving four students and myself to make the final push. (It occurred to me on that day that we were five in town, five at last camp, and five attempting the final ascent. It was the first time it really made sense to me to be slogging through India fifteen strong. )

I say dark horses because our team was composed of: Me, who was not “supposed” to be doing the trek alone with the students again this time around; a female student who had been suffering from consistent gastrointestinal problems for the last month (when everyone else was complaint-free); a male student who forgot his hiking boots, was prepared to hike in crappy Indian sandals, and was decked out like a 70’s version of Gandalf in tight plaid pants and a pointy-hooded robe; another female student who was trekking in moccasins and a wool blanket, and had been fighting off her own visit from the amoeba fairy; and another female student with frequent complaints of toe injuries, back pain, headaches, and persistent daily existential angst. All plowed to the top with good humor behind Bobby, our assistant guide, who valiantly carried our lunch of potatoes and pasta on his back, and eyed us indulgently as we tore into my sacred stash of toasted nori to celebrate our accomplishment.

The crunch of boots in crusts of snow, the clang of bells hanging from the necks of the pack mules, and the singsong chirping of village kids (“Namaste-toffee!”, which translates into “Hello, God, give me some candy!” ) were all familiar from last year, but so much more poignant with the unexpected blessing of this second chance to really see it all.

I kept staring up at the impenetrable façade of these ancient mountains and thinking of Lhamo, who’d traversed peaks much like these with her father into Nepal, with nothing but her purple sweatshirt and a few keepsakes from home between her and the elements. Unimaginable. Our guides kept us warmed by fires and stuffed with as much delicious food (chow mein, pizza, banana pie!), as our uneven appetites could handle, and yet the misery at the hands of the voracious microbes in our group seemed unparalleled. All things being relative, though, much was endured and much achieved.

We all made it back here to Rishikesh for a day of comforting toilet proximity and pharmaceuticals, and the allure of the desert is teasing away some of the dull exhaustion from the gazes of my students. I am soaking in one last breakfast on the banks of the wind-stippled Ganga, and pitching my Dramamine into the bin in celebration of the long, flat (not counting pothole canyons) journey across the Gangetic plain.

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