Helping Hands in the Himalayas: A journey of Companionship
(otherwise known as ‘getting around the mountains on sugar, sweat and tears, and holding a lot of hands!’)
‘Did you see that man?’
‘The one over there.’ I followed the direction of the pointing finger. It was 6am and already there were people everywhere. The porters crowded the back of the bus in their dirty red shirts and un-white neckscarves. The luggage compartment was yanked open.
‘What’s he doing there?’ I ask.
‘Dunno,’ another voice responds. ‘He’s not one of them,’ she nods towards the porters. The porters, who step over him, unlooking, to reach the bags.
I take a step closer to look. A camera clicks beside me. ‘I have to have a picture of this, unbelievable.’ I flinch. ‘Do you think he’s dead?’ asks camera woman.
In the dry dirt and dust of Delhi train station, this man lies face down, his eyes shut, his body flat against the hard, unwelcoming ground. His t-shirt is grubby to a point where I cannot imagine the cause. His jeans are faded, ripped, plastered against the fleshless bones. Naturally, he has no shoes.
One foot twitches.
‘Oh, good, he’s not dead then,’ as she clicks once more.
I want to feel relieved. How can I when his waking life is this? I wonder if anyone knows him. Anyone at all.
India is a tricky place to visit. It is the first time I have been somewhere that I cannot say I ‘enjoyed’, because aspects of that culture and that world broke my heart.
For a start, it’s a long way away: two planes, a seven hour train journey, and six hours on a minibus to get to our destination in Northern India, Dharamsala, in the foothills of the Himalayas. We arrived in the dark at 10pm, raced around to the restaurant that kept our dinner for supper, then back to our hotel for 5 ½ hours’ sleep. The previous two nights were lost to travel and time changes and unhealthy dozes in various moving vehicles.
The next morning we stared out of our window at the mountains rising before us and made sense of the fact that we’d taken the elevator down last night to Floor One as Five was street level. After breakfast, we were off in jeeps an hour further into the hills to be deposited in a woody glade. The sun was shining. Snow was bright on the distant peaks. Wow. We were kitted up, booted, and off. An hour later we stopped for a breather, all in high spirits, guzzling our water as ordered and trying to say hello to one another. Then we set off again, down the side of the mountain. And I mean down the side of a mountain. Suddenly this was serious: zig-zagging along what was way too steep to just go down, rough steps hewn into the clay to give some foothold. The paths were narrow and the edges too close, too severe: precipices.
Now I am not normally a coward. I’m an independent career woman who has brought up an Autistic, deaf young man by myself for many years. I have paraglided across the sea when I cannot swim, I have done a ‘loop the loop’ in a small plane over the White Cliffs of Dover, I’ve been to the top of the Eiffel Tower and the World Trade Center, when it still stood. So I was not ready for what happened next: I panicked! I looked at the size of those hills and the drop of those falls and I was terrified. And terror is so unhelpful. Adrenalin pumps through your body, wasting your energy reserves, and hyperventilation is totally ruining the oxygen balance so you get wobbly and shaky – not what you need when you don’t trust your feet on the ground anyway. Add to that the shock that it is happening at all – to me – here in the Himalayas! I didn’t think it was the most appropriate moment for a full-on nervous breakdown. And to top it off, I was among strangers – what must they be thinking?