Monday, 26 November 2012

India; Part 2

 Part 2: A scary day and a dark night.

The Indian guides stepped in, and two of the trek leaders flanked me front and back, taking my hand when necessary (‘just hold it, please?’) and quickly learning to block my view before I could register the next drop. By the time we made it to the bottom of this valley, crossing a bridge with no sides to have lunch by the river, I was shocked and mortified by what was happening to me. I felt too sick to swallow any food, and there was still the other side of the mountain to climb to reach where we’d camp for the night. I knew my body was empty, but we had to walk on. One of the Indian guides, Manev, said to me, ‘For you this walk is about companionship and helping hands. How very intuitive and wise: you see, I am not the sort of person who asks for help, whatever I’m doing. I push myself hard, finding it difficult to accept help from even my closest friends. And here I was, being forced to literally hold hands with strangers.

The climb up was just as bad, with the awareness that we were getting higher with every step so obviously I would have so much further to fall as I tumbled and broke my neck. I kept hearing a friend’s voice in my ear, ‘baby steps, just watch your feet and don’t look over.’ It wasn’t always easy not to look, though, and eventually I swore at it all. ‘Feck!’ The trek leader in front of me, Dave, said, “Thank goodness for that. I was having trouble with an Irish person who didn’t swear.” I laughed and told him I’d been doing my best to behave myself. From that point on, I used expletives as ammunition to attack every next obstacle the mountain threw at me: brooks over rocks and mud, flaky clay, the large tree that had come down right across our path, hence acquiring my nickname for the week, ‘Madame Feck-feck.’

I arrived at camp in the dark (and no, I wasn’t last). I wanted to hide in my tent and cry. But I didn’t. After a coffee with a splash of brandy from my tent buddy, I wrapped up in my extra layers, donned my head torch, and went for chai. Circling the edges of chatting groups, I would hear someone refer to ‘that poor woman who was scared of heights’. I’d step forward, “That’d be me.” And another, ‘that poor thing who was crying on the way down,’ “that’d be me.” And that was when I started to make friends.
That night I could not sleep, as in literally – my eyes, my body, my brain simply would not switch off, despite me knowing that I was exhausted and needed it. Instead, the night was filled with flash after flash of all the terrible moments that had made up that fearful day, accompanied by wash after wash of adrenalin-flushed terror. Definitely my long dark night of the soul. I had wanted this trip to India to be in some way spiritually enlightening, but this sure as hell wasn’t what I’d envisioned. So I lay there and made a plan – firstly that when I got home I wouldn’t be so fiercely independent and would invite and be grateful for help in my life, and secondly, that I would make it to the village on the next day’s itinerary, then I’d head back along the road to Dharamsala. You see, I wasn’t afraid of an adventure, I just had to get off this mountain.

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Finally talking about India. Part 1

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?’
‘What 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?