Wednesday, November 19, 2014

The Abode of Snow: Trekking in the Himalaya

Part I - The Journey to the Mountains...

(Right click here and open in new tab for suggested accompanying music:)

November 1st – November 9th, 2014 

Amidst a hurried morning of last minute preparations, Oscar and I escape the office for a quick, but real coffee. In a country where coffee means powdered NestCafe, it is hard to understate the bliss of a cup of dark, thick espresso. Meanwhile, our Project Week's 16.00 bus departure has been advanced last minute to 14.30, giving students twenty minutes exactly to leave their last class, finish packing and have lunch.  Rita exerts her Austrian Disciplinarian persona to its fullest as we hustle sixteen students into readiness. Miraculously, we are all on the bus and good to go on time. Only... where is the driver? We send Hindi speaking students to inquire. Ek minute, we are assured: one minute. He went for lunch. Well, everyone' gotta eat...

By the time we are rolling, its 16.00.

We drive North, passing through tunnels under hillsides and into large valley's I've not yet seen, increasingly densely developed as we draw near to Mumbai. In the golden light of the setting sun, I read from Peter Matthiesson's Snow Leopard, a story of trekking in the Himalayas that enthralled me when I read it nearly ten years ago, living in Guelph still, dreaming that I might be accepted to a mythical Hogwarts-like school on Vancouver Island. A wonderful full circle with which to begin a adventure to the same mountains that fed Matthiesson's pages and my imagination years ago.

Where the bus ride end, the real adventure begins. Aparna, MUWCI's on-site counsellor and psychology teacher, sweeps into action as our adult Hindi speaker and India Railway Specialist. She sorts us out, and soon we are not only on the right train, but spreading fresh pressed sheets onto the flip-down seats that will be our beds for the night. I make a visit to the various berths occupied by MUWCI students, offering a handshake, high five or hug to each as I bid goodnight to the suddenly stress-free students who have left the pressures of Ivy League college applications far behind.

I sleep solidly.

I wake up in Rajasthan.

Suddenly it is the grey light of dawn. I escape the vicious AC of our cart to squat in the none-air-conditioned service room between carts, where I take my morning chai and look out the open door at the world the tracks are slowly leading us through. The grey light of dawn is amplified by the greyscale scene all around: bleak train tracks, crumbling concrete platforms and thin framed people camouflaged by grey garments, picking through the mounds of rubbish dispelled from passing trains. The early morning sun has no warmth to it.

I head back in. We roll into farmland once more. I learn that I have woken up in Rajisthan. We pass Chambal Station, the home of Fulan Devi, better known as Bandit Queen, an Indian woman made (in)famous for seeking revenge for female rape victims by killing their male assailants. The land is flat here, strikingly different from the hills of Maharashtra, but the cows seem to share the same ascetic indifference to the goings ons around them.

As the day continues we travel across Rajasthan, through Madhya and Uttar Pradesh and finally into Haryana state, and Delhi.

Following tribe through crowd.

We arrive to Delhi at 16.30 with an original plan of waiting in the station for the full six hour wait before our connecting train. But as soon as we arrived in this ancient, thriving city we shift to Plan B. We ditch our mountain of packs in the train station and saddle up a fleet of rickshaws that take us to nearby Connaught Place. The meeting place: McDonalds. I am appalled, and escape to a nearby cafe for my first espresso in months. By the time I return, all the students have vanished. Rita—who hours ago had been asserting with her characteristically Austrian authority that no one was to leave the station—grins at me and explains the new rule: groups of three, with a cell phone, meet back here in four hours. Freedom.

After a few blocks of exploration amongst Connaught Place's array of far too Western shops—United Colors of Beneton, amongst others—Felipe and I leave Rita and Aparna to their shopping and dash out in search of more soulful adventure. Knowing only where we don't want to go, we turn to the next obvious landmark: a flag of India so large you can see it from space. Below this flag, in the park that surrounds it, we spot a group of impossibly colourful youth: UWC colourful. It is Meytar, Israel; Ian, Kenya; Attul, N. India and Ilie, Republic of Moldova. A group of lads of ever there was. While we had collectively agreed to stay close to Connaught Place, the six jump at the idea of going to see the famous India Gate—India's Arc de Triomphe. After a quick and hilarious work-out session in the park—we are, after all, preparing for a trek in the Himalayas!--we pile into rickshaws and race through the busy streets of Delhi on a Friday night.

As we regroup and walk down the Rajpath, a broad roadway, void of vehicles save parked military Royal Enfields—a testament to the Indian military's continued devotion to this iconic motorcycle—we see in the distance the giant stone archway that is the India Gate: a memorial to the 82,000 soldiers of the Indian Army who died between 1914-21 during the First World War. Each white rock of this colossal gate is inscribed with names of these fallen men. Through the arches, we notice outlines of scaffolding and people, and as we draw nearer, make out a bandstand. Inquiring to some nearby officers, in full ceremonial regalia, we are informed that tonight is a once-in-a-year concert: a band of Indian and British military musicians, flown in from all corners to play music in memory of these nations' long and complex history together.

We laugh at our luck, and joke about the crowd that must be occupying the roped off first row of chairs: Duke and Earls we imagine. But my laughter subsides as the second song begins. A traditional Indian flute plays out above the rest, swooping and reeling, carving an untouchable melody out of the background of classical western chord progressions. It is captivating. Awe inspiring. Moving. To me, in that moment, it is the story of India against a background of three hundred years of British rule; the sound of that which was never lost and after more than five thousand years can be recognized still. 

*All photo credit to my wonderful housemate and intrepid photographer *
Felipe Andres Fontecilla Gutierrez
aka. The Voice

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