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September 18, 2004


A very Indian traffic jam

(This entry was started in July, but only finished on 18 september and published. After a few weeks I'll move it and put it where it belongs on the July archive page).

7th July 2004
Traffic jams are scarcely a phenomena unique to India, or indeed worse in India than anywhere else - Bangkok's gridlock always seems far worse than the Delhi traffic which does at least move. But India, with the swirling mayhem of its roads, inevitably has to has its own unique take on this blight of the modern world. This is usually the ability to manufacture traffic jams with no obvious cause, or to produce them in places where realistically no traffic jam should exist, and from a bare minimum of raw material.

In theory it only takes two vehicles to have a proper traffic jam in India, and I have seen blocks with only three or four cars that have taken half an hour to unpick. A high degree of selfishness on the part of at least one driver is also essential, and this vital ingredient is likely to be provided in spades by most of the participants in proportion to the size, shininess and newness of their cars, and is directly related to how "important" they perceive themselves to be (probably an inverse function of how important anyone else thinks they are). Freud would no doubt have a few words on the subject, especially in light of the penis size/car size relationship apparent from motoring magazines. Those who avoid Indian roads like the plague can still enjoy something of this fascinating spectacle, as the same mathematics of self importance apply to queues in post offices and railway stations, although in absence of cars, moustache size seems to be the main determining indicator.

The roads in Himachal Pradesh are particular favourites for the minimalist jam; the roads are narrow with little or no verge, with large drops and high cliffs giving little room to manoeuvre and make space once a jam has been set in motion. It works something like this:

Bus 'A' and truck 'B' meet head on a moderately narrow road, and have to stop to edge past each other, a manoeuvre that will take them a few minutes given the narrow road. Car 'C', an 'important' person in a Toyota Qualis (who has been stuck behind truck 'B' for nearly 5 minutes before this, and has 15 Punjabi tourists in the back) decides he is in a hurry, and this is the ideal opportunity to slip by the pesky truck 'B'. He moves round the outside of truck 'B' hoping for a gap between it and bus 'A'. He moves far enough down the other lane to block it and stop the bus moving.

Meanwhile, on the other side, car 'D' (an especially 'important' civil servant from Delhi on his holiday, with wife and kids in the back of the white Maruti 800), has pulled the same trick, blocking the forward movement of truck 'B'. Now both lanes are nicely blocked by vehicles pointing in opposite directions.

Car 'C' (the Toyota Qualis) has now discovered there is no gap between bus and truck, and spends five minutes sitting trying to psyche out the driver of bus 'A' into backing up, with much imperious gesticulation and horn honking. Failing to intimidate (bus 'A' is driven by a tough looking Sikh who has played this game to Olympic standard), he tries to back up, only to discover that he can't because car 'E' (another Maruti whose driver has a morbid fear of reversing) has come up behind HIM. To make it worse, scooter 'F' and rickshaw 'G' have hemmed car 'C' in on the right, making any attempt to use the minimal verge to pull a three point turn impossible in any case.

The mess on the other side has done much the same thing, with car 'D' hemmed in by a cliff to his right, and Mazda truck 'H' behind leaning aggressively on his horn. In fact, everyone else is leaning on their horn too.

An so it goes on, with the rest of the alphabet rapidly filling up as others join the fun. Later entrants, unable to see the entertainment at the front, will join those blocking the right hand lane just to get a view, and most of the male bus passengers will get off to have a closer look and a quick cigarette. Within half an hour a fully fledged two or three km traffic jam will have formed in the arse end of nowhere for no especially good reason, the solution looking rather tougher than doing a Rubik’s cube with a hangover and both arms tied behind your back.

Somewhere out of this blaring snarling mess of traffic, a natural leader will emerge, probably the Sikh driver of truck 'X' (further back in the jam), who has doubtless done this a thousand times. By a process that can only be likened to magic, he will cajole, wave, shout, push, bang and generally shout orders until something starts to give and wheels begin to turn. There will be setbacks. Someone in a green Maruti Zen with 300 camouflage covered suitcases on the roof will look studiously unaware of the chaos around him as he drives into the space recently made to allow truck 'B' to inch forward, and seek to gain advantage, but a few sharp words and a lot of honking from the others and he'll give in.

Finally, about 2 hours after dark, everyone will finally be on their way, only a few hours later than was strictly necessary. If they are really lucky they might just get to where they are going without another improbable jam.

There are many other possible scenarios in which these techniques can be applied. No road in India is too big or too small to create some impromptu traffic chaos - except possible the impossibly wide roads close to the secretariat in New Delhi. Railway crossings are big favourite; by the time the barrier goes up, a whole line of cars, scooters trucks etc will be filling the width of the road in both directions, perfectly set up for a jam in the middle of the rail tracks.

One of the more inexplicable traffic jams came when travelling to Delhi by night bus from Manali. Somewhere in a small and extremely obscure village close to Bilaspur, lacking even a side turning, a queue of more than a hundred trucks stretched in both directions going precisely nowhere, for no obvious reason. A hour and a half and a packet of Wills Flake later, we got going, passing no evidence of an accident or breakdown on the narrow road.

Bombay rush hour has a special design feature to guarantee chaos; the solitary road out of the city is simply too narrow to fit any reasonable amount of traffic through at an acceptable speed. In 1996 I came up with the incredibly dumb idea of waiting till it was dark (and theoretically cooler) to drive out of the city from Churchgate station. After dark, of course, is the rush hour, and the Bullet insisted on overheating regularly in the almost stationary traffic necessitating a few stops to let it cool, and, factoring in chai breaks, it took us about 7 hours odd to get out to Panvel, just beyond the city limits. The same journey in reverse, done at just about daybreak with almost no traffic on the road, took 25 minutes.

But for all the chaos, revving engines and aggressive sounding blaring horns, there never seems to be any actual violence. "Road rage", as it is known, seems to be an increasingly common feature of traffic chaos in the UK these days. Blast your horn impatiently at someone a bit slow off the mark on Hyde Park Corner, and like as not he'll pull over and take a swing at you or worse. Stabbing, ramming and murder are not unheard of. In the US it must be worse, if for no better reason than they are allowed to carry large firearms, and some seem to enjoy using them. But assuming there is no collision, I have never actually seen anyone in an Indian traffic jam get physically aggressive, and even the verbal is fairly limited. The most worrying aspect of the lack of violence, I suppose, is that Indians may just possibly enjoy traffic jams. In which case I am missing the point, and should perhaps be joining in more wholeheartedly.

The reason I mention all this is that we encountered an especially fine example of the breed today - twice at the same spot just before Patlikuhal when coming from Manali. A bit of road widening is going on, so the road is a little narrower than usual, but still wide enough to take two trucks or buses with a little care, and the assumption that not too many 'important' people are around. On the way down to Kullu in the morning, Pointless Traffic Jam Number One was fairly mild, only adding half an hour to the journey, but that must've been a warm up for Pointless Traffic Jam Number Two which got us on the way back, and closely resembled the description further up the page. It might not have been too bad, but terribly important Qualis and Maruti driving fuckwits were a little thicker on the ground than usual, and the dark made it all a little harder to unpick for the large Sikh trucker who grimly undertook the task. The star of the show was the especially dense driver of a Swaraj Mazda light truck, who clearly had not the vaguest clue how wide his vehicle was, and seemed to need at least four feet of clearance each side before considering trying to move forward. The combination of his fixed and rather embarrassed grin and his lack of competence eventually enraged the Sikh traffic jam manager, who resorted to a mixture of bellowing, gesticulating and eye rolling to coax Mazda Man forward. Having got this mobile roadblock out of the way, a Maruti wallah of the "nobody'll mind if I just nip through here" variety tried to, well, nip through, but quickly gave up and headed to the rear of the line, after being on the end of the ultimate Darth Vader Death Stare from the outraged Sikh. If he can bat as well as he glares, he could be the answer to India's weak middle order batting.

One hundred and fifty fun packed minutes later and it was all over and we were rattling off once more to Manali, the road behind apparently clear of traffic, although almost certainly the whole scene would be repeated within the hour.

To some extent we all visit India to experience "the swirling chaos and teeming streets", but sometimes the whole swirling and teeming bit is far more enjoyable in the abstract, discussed over a chai than in an actual participatory role, unless perhaps you are a sociology professor or writing a paper on "practical applications of chaos theory in the real world".

2:33 AM by: Woody URL for this post

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September 15, 2004


Chai crawl in Jagatsukh

(This entry was started in July, but only finished on 15 sep and published. After a few weeks I'll move it and put it where it belongs on the July archive page).

6th July 2004
A few days after watching the rice planting in Jagatsukh, we printed the pictures off and headed over to deliver them to the women. This is always a barrel of laughs, because addresses are not exactly "22a Temple street, Jagatsukh, J21", but more like "near the temple store" if they are specific, and more likely to be vague, as in "lower part of the village", which obviously leaves some vast scope for error. Having names and pictures in hand is far more helpful, as people generally know each other.

The pictures we give are almost always inkjets run off from our rather aging digital camera, and hence not usually large, about small postcard size, although the prints are good quality and far better colour than is possible in Manali from negative film. People are often quite taken and want a bigger print, which is where it gets entertaining, as to explain why involves a brief lesson in digital image resolution (or lack of) in our (mainly Kirstens) very inadequate Hindi. OK for asking where Kesari lives, not up to scratch for "the image is only 1250x960 pixel dimension, so its not up to A4 print at 200 DPI" Like I said, a fun day out.

We started from Prini, taking the winding path from the village and up to Shuru, where we popped into the new temple to see how work was going. A few more panels had gone up, but progress was still slow. We were told the Pratishta ceremony, held when the temple is finished and the roof beam added, is going to happen in January. The idea of dragging a 50 foot pine tree for the Dhoj down the icy snowy hillside makes the mind boggle. (For a hazy explanation of a previous pratishtha try this blog entry.)

The temple has a large (for a village) dharamshala next door, and a kitchen to provide food, tea etc for the guys working on the temple, some of whom have been there for more than a year. The guy who runs the temple kitchen is extremely nice (to our shame we have never asked his name, but then he has never asked ours either) and if he's around, will invariably cook us up a chai and offer lunch. We sat for a while in his makeshift kitchen and drank tea, along with another local guy and his cute but shy 4 year old daughter, who made a big show of moaning about her tea being too hot.

If there is ever a reason to go into the Kulu valley's villages (who needs one?) it is the sense of peace and near silence - really an absence of background noise, broken only by the gentle sounds of village life; a cow, the clank of a scythe, the rustle of hay being stacked or the occasional laughter of village women talking as they carry baskets of grass home. This day had the additional sound of a light breeze rustliing the branches of the huge and ancient deodar that stands close to the temple. Idyllic? Just doesn't do it justice.

After a fill of chai and temple building news, we continued on the path up to Banara, the village above Jagatsukh. In all, this is a nice walk, not too much uphill, and not many of the plunging drops that turn my stomach when I look over the edge. The path winds up through the forest that covers the slopes, before emerging within sight of Banara and with a stupendous view down onto the rice fields of Jagatsukh, and far down the valley toward Kullu town in the hazy distance. The spot is special enough that there is a large flat stone set in the ground at the optimum viewpoint. We always thought the stone might be a place for the statue of the Banara God, but a local guy told us it is just there as a place to sit and soak in the view.

The guy who told us was Dule-Ram, who we met with his wife Kimtu at the spot on a previous walk. They were the first picture delivery on our route, a couple in their late 60s and possessed of the character filled and lined faces that a movie director would kill for. We showed the picture and asked for the house. "Purana ghar" we were told; old house. In a village where every house is of indeterminate age and a high degree of wonkiness, thats not a lot of help, but eventually someone pointed to the house we were standing next to.

Dule-Ram's grandson showed us up to the balcony where the old man was sitting and relaxing, pointing to the 4 foot pine beamed ceiling so we wouldn't bang our heads. Been there enough times. Dule-Ram invited us to join him on his blanket, set under the wooden cut out windows that commanded a view of the valley almost equal to the flat stone. He sent his grandson off to make chai, and took the picture we handed him, just staring at it for a long, long time, with what seemed like a slightly sad smile. We had taken the shot a few months before, and as we watched him staring, we began to wonder if Kimtu - who wasn't in the house - had maybe died. Communication is often tough even with a bit of Hindi, and our cultural understanding on matters such as death are sketchy, so we just didn't ask where she was, and Dule-Ram didn't say. Eventually he stood the picture against the wood of the balcony, and we passed a few pleasantaries with him and his grandson about the view, and the huge walk the poor kid has to school every day - a steep half an hour down to Jagatsukh. We asked about the age of the house, and, as so often, got the answer of 80 years, which adds up to about 10 years more than Dule-Ram, and hence beyond his memory. History beyond personal recollection is rarely a big concern among villagers, and I would be amazed if the house was less than double the age of the old mans guess.

With a load more piccies to deliver, we began the walk down to Jagatsukh village, home to most of the rice planting women we had photographed. The village is spread a long way up the steep hillside, and we were determined to make the most of going down and to avoid having to go up again to find the right houses, for which we had only very, very rough locations plus names. We struck lucky on the first go. While walking down the path, one of the women, Dropti, came out of the house we were just passing. We handed over the picture, and were immediately surrounded by 5 or 6 other curious villagers, all having a good laugh at the image of the women ankle deep in water.

To get some directions to the other houses, we got out the other pictures, and in what became a familiar ritual for the day, they were grabbed from us and sifted through by the onlookers who demonstrated the usual Indian insatiable appetite for "snaps" of any sort that involve people they know. We got a few contradictory and confusing clues as to the locations of the other houses, so confusing in fact that we had to stop someone else 100 metres later to ask again.

A few wrong paths and impromptu snap viewing sessions later we arrived at Kesari's house, a slightly less wonky construction with a massive courtyard paved in local stone. From the rice planting, Kesari was memorable for her incredibly beautiful smile, and we were treated to another sight of it as she shouted hello from the balcony and invited us up. With me never one to say no to chai, we settled into a couple of comfy chairs and chatted with Kesari while one of her 5 kids brewed up, coming back with a tray of glasses and a plate of biscuits. We were joined by her in laws, another old couple with wide smiles and lined faces, the old lady's eyes shrouded in a pair of glasses with lenses like the bottom of coke bottles. Old people (women especially) are sometimes reticent in talking to foreigners, but these two could hardly stop, both chipping in at the same time, as Kesari showed us some snaps from the family album. She told us she had been married at 14 - an incredibly early age by Kulu Valley standards, and the first woman we had met who had been married so young. A lifetime of hard field work and chasing her five kids had done her no harm, and even at 38 she is a an extremely good looking woman with a drop-dead smile and humourous, sparkling eyes.

Kesari gave us directions to the next nearest delivery on our list, but as usual the directions relied on village features and shortcuts we didn't know, so we took about 20 wrong turns before arriving at the post office, ironically the one building in the village we could have found on our own, had anybody mentioned it. Ritu, whose picture we were delivering, was out somewhere, so we left the picture with her family and asked for our next address, Ubi Devi.

Ubi Devi was clearly well known in the village as everyone knew her picture and pointed in the direction of her house. Her principle claim to fame seemed to be as the mother of Chuni Lal, as every time we showed the picture someone would say in Hindi "Ah, Chuni Lal's mother". Quite who Chuni Lal was we never found out, but clearly the family had a fair bit of cash and clout as the two storey house we eventually reached was extremely large, modern and well appointed. We were invited in for chai, but declined on Kirstens rather spurious assertion that we would miss the bus.

This is the point on such occasions that Kirsten and I tend to have disagreements. I am a great believer in the notion that there is no such thing as too much chai, or too little time to drink it in. To me the best way to get to know the place and the people is to drink chai with them. Were we to follow this philosophy entirely, clearly there would be time for nothing else, but Kirsten's "just say no" policy means we drink less chai and miss the bus anyway; clearly not cricket.

I expounded this "chai is good" theory as we got comprehensively lost in the maze of the lower part of the village, walking past Thakeri's house about five times before someone pointed it out, cunningly hidden as it was in a narrow alley. By this point Kirsten had absorbed some of my approach, and agreed to a chai. Thakeri was the woman who had kindly fed us bhaturu and subzi in the field when we went to see the rice planting, and after she brought us chai, we showed her some video footage of her feeding us and up to her ankles in mud planting rice, which caused her and her wide eyed four year old son huge amusement. She told us to look out for her husband, who apparently drives rickshaw number 1680 in Manali. I struggled with trying to work if revealing to 1680 that we knew his wife would lead to a reduction or increase in the level of overcharging. She was happy with her picture, and inevitably wanted a larger one - impossible given our digi cam's resolution. So in the interests of not appearing like we couldn't be bothered, we gave her a crash course in the basics of digital imaging and printing, but she still didn't look entirely convinced.

Not being prone to breaking traditions, we got lost once again on the way to Ramde's house, but by one of those strokes of luck we bumped into another friend, Dinesh, who took us there. Dinesh, and Ramde's son Raju have been the principle force in raising local awareness and opposition to the negative consequences of the World Bank funded Allain Duhangan hydro electric project, whose future is currently under review. Ramde was out and we left the picture with a neighbour.

The last stop for the day was just opposite at the house of Kundi Devi who - as with many of the women - threw her hand over her mouth giggling at the sight of her photograph, her kids jumping up to grab the picture out of their mum's hand. Ignoring the fact the bus had probably gone, Kirsten had reverted to her former approach and politely declined the offer of chai, earning herself a grumpy boyfriend for the next ten minutes.

We said goodbye to Kundi Devi and went down to the main road to check out the bus situation. Unsurprisingly, the consensus of those we talked to was that it was gone, and the firmness of their answers convinced us they were serious. I persuaded Kirsten the best way to be sure was to go and sit in one of Jagatsukh's excellent chai shops near the bus stand, so we'd have a chance if by some miracle the last bus actually came. It didn't, but I got a couple more chai in before we began the long and tedious walk back to Manali.

It seems to be one of the laws of nature that when walking back to Manali on this road, all rickshaws that are going the right way are full, and all going the opposite way are empty and uninterested in turning round. We paid close attention to number plates in the vain hope Thakeri's husband in 1680 might take pity on us, but inevitably none stopped. We walked as far as Aleo and had a couple more of the especially fine chai sold by the Tibetan woman next to the Holiday Inn, and finally managed to find an empty rickshaw for town.

Indians love seeing their photos, and it was a fun day delivering them. Somehow giving people a copy of a picture loosens them up, and you are usually treated like an old friend when you go to deliver it. There is also an added bonus next time you wander off to the fields to take pictures. Women in the Valley are often reluctant to be photographed - especially by foreigners - and if someone else is there who you have given a print to in the past, it is a real ice breaker, the atmosphere is much more relaxed, and your request for a picture is more likely to be granted.

3:36 AM by: Woody URL for this post

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August 23, 2004


Denial, introspection and reflection (or "who ran off with my life?")

Sometimes a state of denial makes some of lifes more unpleasant realities easier to deal with, and denying the extremely obvious is how Kirsten and I have spent the last six months. The obvious in this case being an imminent and extensive return to Europe; a prospect both of us find slightly less appealing than a series of lengthy visits to the dentist for some major (and unanaethestised) root canal work.

Well, reality has finally kicked in with a vengeance, and sadly the funs all over. This blog is being written not in the majesty of the Indian Himalaya, but in a rather soggy, grey and lobotomised corner of Kent, in the south east of England. The paise is largely khatam (finished), so its time once again for the dreary uphill slog of acquiring more in reasonably large quantities so that we can return to India and do it all over again. ASAP.

In short, we're back in the UK for the next few years.

To those that have written recently asking why the blog (and site) haven't been updated recently, I can only apologise for my sheer slackness. Between the hectic rush to pack and ship our piles of books, clothes etc, saying goodbye to friends and the Kulu Valley, and the rude and alienating culture shock of arriving in a country and culture I find it increasingly difficult to comprehend, have put the most recent stories of life in the valley of the gods somewhat on the back burner.

Its hard not to think of it all as a failure in some way; that not finding a way to perpetuate our life in what is after all a cheap place to live constitutes a cock up of fairly monumental proportions. Sadly, the Indian habit of not giving long visas cost us a stack of cash for regular trips to get new six month visas elsewhere in Asia or Europe. Those unwanted trips probably took two years or more off our time in India. We would have been more than happy to work in India, but obtaining a legit work or business visa makes finding the holy grail look like a pleasant Sunday afternoon out.

It seems 90 percent of the long term westerner population of the Kulu Valley can afford to be long term by shunting Charas around, either overseas or down to Goa, but being sadly more and more fundamentalist as I get older, I really just cant be arsed with the inane "my dopes better than your dope" conversations that seem to be de rigeur among hash smugglers, or the notion that a days work involves swallowing half a KG of hash and spending a 9 hour flight wondering whether I'd be spending the next few days in a room with a glass toilet when I got to Heathrow, courtesy of HM Customs and Excise.

And that is what I assume most people think we do; smuggle dope. We met one of the rickshaw guys that park near our hotel in Delhi just before we left. We told him we were going back to Europe for a few years, and when we went to walk away, Raju waited till Kirsten was out of earshot before asking "so did you have some business in Manali?", with a certain look on his face. Now Raju knows very well we stay in Manali; he sees us about once every six months or so on the way to get a new visa, when we usually book an airport cab with one of his mates, then a couple of weeks later on the way back. He's never asked before how we can afford it, and that has always surprised me somehow, since every time we come back he asks us where we're off to, and we say - yet again - Manali. I cringe every time he asks, especially in the middle of winter when clearly only honeymooners, mad people, and dopeheads take the sixteen hour bus for the wilds of the Freezing North.

So in answer to his question, I just said no Raju, we arent shifting the odd quintal of hash in our backpacks, and outlined the reasons why. He looked at me very cynically, but I think he may have been convinced by the clinching argument - if we were smuggling the odd key, we wouldnt be heading back to the UK.

The other popular ways for foreigners to earn money in the valley, with varying degrees of legality, is either the restaurant trade or trekking agencies. Any regular readers of this blog will know well that trekking for me is the 7km walk from Jagatsukh after missing the last bus, and restaurants are places I eat in, not run. Anyway, both of these little earners involve being ingratiatingly nice to other backpackers on a day in day out basis, something I would find nearly impossble judging from the stories of Israeli (where the money is) behaviour told by our many friends in the travel and cafe trades in Manali.

At the end of it all, the choice of living in India for three years was as much to do with a desire to exert control on my own life than anything else (I can't speak for Kirsten here), and to end up doing something I really do not want to do would be to compromise that ideal. "Ha", I hear you say, "well, ending up back in the UK is an even bigger (and less palatable) compromise! Dont give me that ideology crap!" True, to some extent. But I have been involved in media for a long time, and its as much about what I do as where I am. My future will certainly involve India, and equally certainly it will involve photography, design, the Internet and other digital media.

Although we may not have worked for money, we have certainly learned a lot and added a few more strings to our bow while in India. With the price of computer books in India being a fraction of the price in the UK, we wholeheartedly indulged ourselves in piles of books on digital imaging, design, web site architecture and filmmaking, which sat slightly oddly next to the more mainstream books for travellers; Gita Mehta's classic "Karma-Cola" and Arundhati Roy's "Algebra of infinite justice". While other travellers immersed themselves in courses on yoga, meditation and Indian spirituality in general, I spent many happily geeky hours in the garden up to the eyeballs in "learn PHP in 24 hours" (impossible!) and "Apache webserver administration for Linux". I may not be any closer to finding God ( I wasn't looking) or the meaning of life, but I am a little wiser on the many benefits of Mod_rewrite and .htaccess files.

I have always argued that the satisfaction of my primary income source, photography, comes not only from capturing a good image, but from the excuse it gives me to indulge my curiosity; allowing me to explore and access a wide range of places and situations most people would never have the opportunity - or reason - to see. The satisfaction of experiencing the broader perspective; from photographing visits of Tory and Labour cabinet members, to documenting the effects their policies have on those at the other end of society in East London. That curiosity is, I think, much the same as that which drives travellers to visit other countries such as India; at its best a voyeuristic drive to see - and hopefully try to comprehend - the differences and similarities between the life in another country compared to our own.

The media interests we have pursued during our three years in India have contributed something of the same sense of purpose, and this web site is one of the spin offs. I suspect we would have visited many of the festivals and villages in the Kulu valley in any case, but photography, film and writing have provided a solid reason to ask the endless stream of questions that have filled in so may gaps for us in the "why?" of the culture. And probably led more than a few of the local people to conclude we are a bit barking, although our circle of close friends in Manali have shown incredible tolerance and patience in discussing the finer points of the religion and culture they have grown up with.

The first two trips I made to India (7 months and two years) over the last 11 years were different in character to this last marathon. India is such a multi layered culture that it seems unlikely anyone could understand it all in a single lifetime, and the very obvious differences to Europe tend to occupy a great deal of the first time visitors attention. Its hard to take it all in and digest it, so its temptiing to try to put it all in boxes and say "I understand", as I doubtless did on my first trip. Then you spend a bit more time, peel back a few more layers of the onion and discover that most of your assumptions were wrong (frequently 180 degrees wrong), or at least didn't tell even half of the story. And so it goes on. Some cultures dont bear too much examination, and the fascination wears off, but somehow India - and especially the Kulu Valley - becomes more compelling the more you dig. What you find is not always - from your own perspective - good. There are many aspects of Indian society that I can never get used to; arranged marriage and the caste system being the two most obvious, and I dont think I would necessarily want to have been born an Indian, with all the societal restrictions that can come with the passport. But even those things can have their positive sides, perhaps not obvious to the casual observer, especially one coming from a society that views such things as restrictive or archaic.

I have a long running argument with a friend over the nature of what is best about India. He hankers for the spiritual side of life, the unfamiliar, and the sense of a country whose villages appear to live in a time warp. He has an odd resentment that an idyllic and timeless village in Spiti can have satellite dishes on the roof. Not, apparently, "authentic", even though TV, mobile phones etc might make life a little easier for the residents. In essence, he seeks the image of tranquility and simplicity long vanished from western society.

The more time I spend in India, the less interested I am in the "grand"; the palaces, the huge temples and the more obviously different aspects of the country, and more I am drawn by the essential similarities to life anywhere in the world. The daily rountines differ really only in scale, complexity, difficulty and environment from place to place. The things we do, our desires and dreams all come down to much the same thing, the major difference being characterized by the level of hardship and strife it takes to achieve our goals. Most people in India, self evidently, have a far harder life than those in the West, yet the end goal for us all is to eat, have somewhere to live and to try and find a measure of satisfaction from our lives.

Much as the ancient in India is fascinating, I find the modern equally so. To have the opportunity to see, in a shortened timespan, the extraordinary changes that are sweeping so unevenly across Indian society has been one of the most interesting aspects of the last three years.

In the cities, the changes are fast and furious. In 1993 I recall few private cars on the Delhi roads; the Hindutan Ambassador wasn't far behind the Maruti in numbers, and traffic jams were fairly modest. A mere 11 years later and Delhi traffic is out of control and the trusty Ambassador is becoming a rarity. I think I read somewhere that there are something like 300,000 more vehicles on Delhi's roads each year, and where as the Maruti is a small car, many of those appearing now are huge and expensive. The city government simply will not be able to think far enough ahead to deal with the traffic crisis emerging from the rocketing prosperity of the new middle class, as wedded to the perceived freedoms of car ownership as their Western counterparts.

While much of village India appears on the outside to have changed little, the impact of satellite media seems to have changed villagers expectations of the possible, and images of middle class prosperity on TV perhaps fuelled the resentment of an "India shining" revolution in which the poor were not sharing. That wave of rural anger left the BJP wondering what hit them, and unexpectedly propelled Congress to an extraordinary victory. The villages have suffered badly from rules set by the WTO, IMF etc, that have insisted on the removal of government subsidy as part of so called "market reforms". The "kisan" ration card that guaranteed subsidised purchase of staples such as sugar, rice, kerosene etc is - as far as I know - finished on the plains, retained only in hill areas. Himachal Pradeshs apple farmers now face stiff competition for their produce from imported - and heavily subsidised - apples from as far away as France.

And there are the odd contradictions that are thrown up by rapid change. The odd sense of priority in villages such as Old Manali where most of the people have access to satellite TV, half have mobile phones and there are huge numbers of Internet connections, yet not more than 5 percent (if that) of private houses (as opposed to hotels) have toilets or showers, most people heading off to the fields for a morning dump, just as their ancestors did. The most potent image I have seen of traditional India colliding with modernity came from the Kumbh Mela in 2001, published in the Independent newspaper in the UK, and showing a heavily dreadlocked and half naked Sadhu laughing as he talked animatedly into a mobile phone.

I cannot, as my friend seems to wish, deny Indians the opportunity for what they perceive as a better life with more material comforts. But I do wonder if the country will manage to strike the right balance between the pursuit of materialism and quality of life. A couple of weeks in the UK (2 hours would have been enough) makes it quite clear why Kirsten and I wanted to get the hell out in the first place. Consumerism here is the only religion or spiritual experience left, yet so few people seem satisfied with their lives. It makes me wonder where the sweet spot is; what is enough comfort? Enough money? Enough control? Enough stress?

Coming back is never an experience I relish. Somehow, in the last few weeks in the idyll of the mountains, you kid yourself it wont really be that bad, there are some positive points. Then you step out from the aircraft into reality and realise that that was all denial. It is not only that bad, it is far, far worse, and the culture shock of returning to the country you grew up in is far harder to deal with than arriving in India for the first time. You realise how many habits you have to drop and assumptions you have to change. I nearly got flattened in town the other day by crossing the road in the slow meandering Indian manner that assumes the car will swerve. It didn't, and the driver had a few choice invectives for me. Trying to remember that you dont have to assume everyone is a queue jumper. Rediscovering that price labels are serious and not a starting point for discussion. Paying one and a half times the the Manali to Mandi (100km) price for a ten minute bus journey.

I could drip on like this for hours, but for now I wont bother, because I have X years of all this *&^%$£ to look forward to before I can wake up to the sight of the Himalaya through the bedroom window. Oh dear, oh dear.

Perhaps this is a bit sentimental (I am) and no one else will get this. But at times like this, I look back on what I have seen and experienced and remember the last lines from the old rock anthem by Rush, "Xanadu" (no, not the Olivia Net John one!!) that seem to best sum up the loss I feel;

"never more shall I return, escape these caves of ice,
for I have dined on honeydew, and tasted the milk of paradise"

5:11 AM by: Woody URL for this post

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What about the Neoncarrot Web site and blog?

Most people seem to do websites when they come back from their travels, perhaps as a way of reliving their experiences and sharing them. It was never intended, but neoncarrot seems to have worked the other way round. We originally concieved it as a way of sharing what we were up to with friends and family while in India, then did nothing with it for two years. Finally we rejigged the whole thing, and have used it to communicate our experiences to people we didn't know (the ones we do from Europe long ago lost interest), but perhaps have an interest in India. We didn't really care at the time if anyone actually read it, but it seems some have enjoyed a bit of live coverage of Himalayan life.

We have plenty more material to add to the site, and plenty of dark, poverty stricken winter nights (the UK is like an emotional version of a perpetual winter night) to add more galleries, essays, stats etc. In the last three years we managed to take over 17,000 digital images, so there must still be some unpublished gems lurking in there somewhere. We also have 40 hours of video, mainly of Kulu Valley festivals, that might find its way onto the site if we can get enough bandwidth.

There are quite a number of blog articles left that are half complete, plus a load still to write for the last month we were in Manali, when life was to hectic to write. I also want to write up the uniquely frustrating and expensive experience of shipping 200 +Kg back to the UK. Just think red tape and headbanging. That stuff, when added, will be put in historically by date as it happened, and I'll add an entry at the top of the front blog page with a link. I'm hoping to put at least two or three back stories up a week, at least for the next few months. Who knows. My creativity has a habit of going tits up inside the M25 (londons ring road).

This blog though, is a difficult one. I'm not sure whether to archive this and start a new one on the site to comment on matters India - which I intend to do - as they come up, or just keeep using this one. Perhaps it doesn't matter and I'm (as usual) splitting hairs. Now that half of Manali has mobile phones and moderate typing skills (even my landlord is learning), I've been promised regular updates on the happenings in the village, and it would be nice to publish some, even if it isnt first hand.

A last thought. If anyone actually likes reading this and happens to be both filthy stinking rich and profligate with money - a near impossibility - I'll happily provide live blogs from Manali (and unlimited gratitude) in unprecedented quantity in exchange for a really fat cheque (preferably with numerous zeros) and a couple of one way tickets LHR-DEL. Naaahh. Didn't think so.

5:07 AM by: Woody URL for this post

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July 18, 2004


Crass stupidity

The American national talent for making enemies and alienating would-be friends never ceases to amaze me. This BBC story has details of the humiliation doled out to former Indian defence Minister George Fernandes by the over enthusiastic and xenophobic security goons at Washington airport, who evidently have no clue as to the meaning of 'diplomacy'.

10:20 PM by: Woody URL for this post

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More details on missing Italian backpacker

More details have emerged on missing Italian backpacker Francesco Gatti's last known movements, including clarification that he did indeed stay in Kasol in the Parvati valley on 26th July 2004. After that date, nothing is currently known, but he may well have gone trekking to Melana, as he suggested in one of his last emails. Check out this blog set up by his girfriend Eleonora to provide up to date details, including a photo and contact details for anyone who may have met him or have further information.

10:17 PM by: Woody URL for this post

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July 17, 2004


Missing person, Francesco Gatti - please help

I've been contacted by Eleonora, an Italian girl seeking info on her boyfriend Francesco Gatti who has gone missing in the Parvati or Kulu valleys, possibly at Naggar or Kasol, on or after the 26th June. More specific details including his last known movements and a picture are here. If you have met Francesco recently while in the area, or have any information at all that could help, please get in touch with Eleonora at missing_francesco"AT" (replace the "AT" with the @ symbol to use the address).

12:19 AM by: Woody URL for this post

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July 15, 2004


"Lend us ten grand so I can finish building my God please"

The festivals and special religious events for which the Kulu Valley is famous are a bit thin on the ground over the summer. The main village festival season runs from mid March to mid May then all goes quiet over the summer except for a special prayer at the Dhungri temple next week, before starting again in September, when Goshal and a few other villages hold their festivals before the Valleys big event; Kullu Dussehra. On a few occasions, the God statues will be invited by a villager to their home for a special event known as a Devi Shadani (or Devta shadani if the God is male), usually attended by the whole village. Villagers will make the invitation to obtain a blessing for an upcoming venture, or as thanks for a good year.

The rich and fascinating culture of the valley stems from, and revolves around, religion, and the festivals and religious events serve both spiritual needs and deepen the sense of community in the villages and the valley as a whole. To begin to understand something of what makes the place tick, a few visits to these gatherings are essential, and as they are in any case enjoyable, we have spent a great deal of time in the last three years visiting the many melas and other events between Solang and Kullu. The more you visit, the more people begin to recognise your face, and as a result the more relaxed they are next time and willing to answer the endless stream of questions we ask about the Gods names, their relationships and any deeper meanings to events. I suspect they think we are totally bonkers, but generally indulge us nevertheless. We have made a fair few new aquaintances by turning up, and (I like to think) earned at least some respect by asking some of our inane questions in halting Hindi. As people often attend gatherings in other villages, its unusual now if we go somewhere and don’t see at least a few familiar faces - at worst it’ll be Prem and the boys from the Old Manali volleyball team, who seem to go to everything.

The marathon 11 day "Vishnu yagya" (a special puja, or prayer) we went to today is being held at the Vishnu temple in Sajla, close to Jagatsukh, and is not a regular annual event. As usual, getting an accurate picture of what it was all about was near impossible in advance, with the same question to six different people eliciting six different and contradictory answers.

The 10 km rickshaw ride out was spectacular and relaxing in itself. After clearing the concrete mess of the luxury hotel zone in Aleo, the usually quiet “left bank” road winds its way through pine forest and small villages, crossing the many small rocky nallahs that come down from the hills around Hamta pass, and looking down over the now vibrant green rice paddies below Jagatsukh, planted only two or three weeks ago.

The road close to Sajla was packed with taxis and rickshaws, waiting for their clients who had sensibly hired them for the day in the full knowledge that finding a rickshaw in Jagatsukh is only slightly easier than finding a cold beer in the Thar desert. A friend who had visited the previous day said she had left at four and proceedings hadn’t yet started, so we arrived at 3.30 and went to find a chai shop for a spot of late breakfast. We ordered a chai and an omlette from the brightly dressed smiling woman, and went to sit in the garden under a shady apple tree. A few moments later, the woman came out tugging her earlobes between her fingers in a gesture of contrition especially popular in the Punjab. She had forgotten the whole village was non-veg for the duration and was apologizing profusely. Indians tend to be liberal with the definition of non-veg, and in this case it would take in not only eggs, but booze. We settled for butter toast and a plate of steamed veg momo.

By the time we had finished and began walking toward the path up to the temple, a fair crowd of people were coming down and evidently heading home. Despite all the claims we have heard in the past about things starting at 1pm or whatever, the main part of events in the Kulu Valley rarely happens much before 4 pm or so. Today was apparently an exception.

Not far from the bottom of the steps up to temple we saw an odd sight. Two planks of blue painted wood were arranged as a sort of impromptu bench spanning a small clear stream, with a couple of large, brightly coloured plastic flowers and a flat tin duck of the “fairground shoot” variety attached to the back. On a small front rail was a small God statue, a minature of the normal full size statues carried on palanquins. Hanging below the seat was an odd contraption resembling a sideways anemometer (wind speed measuring instrument) made of battered tin plates painted alternately in red and green, spinning under the pressure of a jet of water from a length of pipe with its other end in a small water cascade behind the seat. The final oddity was an old metal thali that held the anemometer to an upright and made a ringing sound when struck by the water. Weird? It was, and especially incongruous in an otherwise apparently sane village. In the UK, it would have been more at home in a Tate modern exhibition, or would at least have merited some arts council funding, a place in a sculpture park and would probably have got its designer a brief spot on some BBC Radio 4 mid afternoon arts programme.

We had only just started taking a few pictures when a smiling old man in a wool jacket and Kulu cap came out of the house next to the stream and started talking in Hindi. We had trouble understanding at first except for the word "paise" (money), but he persevered till we got the message, pointing repeatedly above the contraption at a hand painted cloth sign written in Hindi. My ability to read Hindi is exactly nil, but Kirsten got it after a few minutes squinting. The artwork had been knocked up by the old gent for tourists to photograph, for a ten rupee fee, and as it was aimed at Indian tourists, the bench was for couples to sit and pose, similar to the snow sculptures that dot Solang valley and Rohtang pass earlier in the year. Since he was evidently as yet undiscovered by the Arts Council, we handed over the cash and persuaded him to sit on the bench and be photographed inside his creation. He introduced himself as Totu-Ram, shook hands and invited us back for chai on our way back from the temple later in the afternoon.

We arrived at the Vishnu temple to find the crowd much thinner than expected. A few hundred people were milling around, and to one side a sitting of communal dinner for the Pandits (brahmins, priests) was in progress, with more people gathered in front of the large tent distributing vast amounts of chai in tin cups to anybody who asked. The Vishnu temple itself was of the "Kulu valley modern" variety, built in the last five years or so in a style familiar from other recently built temples, the finest of which is the new Shiva temple in Siyal. The pillars around the temple were decked out with hanging lights and flowers, and a stream of people waited to enter and offer prayers.

Just next to this main temple stood a small and ancient shrine (4 feet high) of indeterminate age, with a pyramid shaped roof decked out in bright flowers that stood sharply out against the dark and weathered stone. It certainly looked old enough to elicit the bog standard "5,000 years old" response that any enquiry as to a temples age will usually bring. Like most of those on the older stone temples in the area, the carvings on this mini temple are entirely unlike the modern representations of the hindu gods found today. The figures are more rounded and slightly plump, often with bulbous circular eyes and stubby bodies and look not dissimilar to representations of gods on temples in Central America.

We wandered up the steps to a higher piece of ground, where a large roofed structure - basically a sloped tin roof 25 feet to a side, supported by girders - seemed to be the centre of attention. Underneath this canopy we could see a few pits, with raised sides apparently made of clay, from which thick smoke and the odd flame emerged. There must have been Ghee (clarified butter) put on the fire, because the air was thick with the aroma of burning fat.

Underneath the far side of the canopy stood a straight line of god statues on palkis (palanquins), all facing toward the centre of the covered area. On the front of each was a small sign that gave the name of the deity and the village, including Karthik Swami from Kakhnal, and five Jamlus (we thought there were only 4 in the valley) from different villages. There were 22 gods on palkis plus another few smaller gods, a total number almost unprecedented outside the Dussehra festival which can be attended by 300 or more deities. Halfway across this area in front of the line of Gods was another statue, clearly separate from the rest. This turned out to be Ganapati, a representation of Lord Ganesh the elephant headed god.

In between Gods and fires we could see a few low wooden seats, about 3 inches high, and a number of smaller flower decorated shrines. The area was roped off to prevent people walking in, and a few Pandits clad in Kulu caps and saffron Dhotis were wandering about inside, occasionally talking to those praying outside. The area is kept "ritually pure" and only Brahmin priests are allowed past the ropes, should a lower caste step inside the ropes, a puja would have to be held to repurify the ground.

We wandered around a bit looking for our landlord, who was supposed to be attending. He has a knack of just appearing out of nowhere and finding us in the densest crowds, and as we had been there ten minutes and not come across him, we wondered if he had been one of those waiting for the bus. We could see people coming and going on a small path upward into the forest so we walked slowly up the hill, passing a sign suggesting a "langar" (communal dining area) was at the end of the path - a likely spot to find our always hungry landlord.

The forest was exceptional, full of tall deodar trees sprouting among the large moss covered boulders and hillocks that looked more like they were designed by a Hollywood set designer than an act of nature; the kind of place JRR Tolkien had in mind when he came up with Lord of the Rings. We decided it was a good spot for a natural beauty break accompanied by a fag, a cheap and best Wills Flake.

We'd been sitting for a few minutes when an old guy with a weathered face, wearing a well worn brown "local" jacket and Kulu cap, walked toward us. We exchanged "namastes" and he sat down next to us and lit a cigarette. We started a fairly difficult conversation in Hindi, made a little easier by his clear pronunciation, and Kirsten asked a few questions about what was happening at the puja, and the names of some gods in attendance. The old guy, Amar Chand, kept talking about Dussehra, but it took a while for us to realise he was reminding us that we had met before at last years Kullu Dussehra, almost certainly when we were wandering around taking pictures of the various Gods in their camps as they sat outside their tents, attended by villagers. Amar Chand kept saying "likhna" (writing) and miming writing on a pad, and since Kirsten must have been the only blonde european woman going around the Dussehra ground writing down the names of village deities with the zeal of a traffic warden taking number plates, he probably had the right people. Obviously the stream of ridiculous questions we had flung at him last October had made an impression, but he seemed pleased enough to see us - even if we were a little mad. Before he headed off toward the langar, he invited us to visit his village, Mala, a days walk high on the opposite side of the valley, and offered to take us riding in the hills on his two horses.

When we arrived at the langar a sitting for dinner was in progress. A couple of hundred people sat in rows on long mats, eating from disposable leaf plates, served by men in orange dhotis. The area was divided into two by a rope, with one area for higer castes and the other for lower, and separate kitchens for each. Each kitchen had several massive brass pots simmering over wood fires, each of the pots large enough to hold one to two "quintals" (1 quintal = 100kg) of rice or dal. At one side was a vast pile of wood -several trees worth - to fuel the fires for the duration of the festival. Communal eating in India is a major exercise in logistics.

We admired the view accompanied by a couple of Wills finest death sticks, and seeing no sign of our landlord, headed down again to the temple. At the bottom of the path a group of children had made an impromptu slide of a large sloping rock, and were sliding down in ones and twos, shrieking with delight when they hit the path at the bottom. The whole atmosphere was relaxed - relaxed enough to suggest we'd missed whatever the focal point of events was. We grabbed ouselves a chai from the large chai tent, spending five minutes fulfilling requests for "one snap" from the humourous crowd of men manning the huge kettles. A group of Dhoti clad pandits stood talking close to the covered area, so Kirsten went over to get the lowdown on what it was all about.

A sadhu (hereafter known as "Babaji", as he is to the villagers) came to the village about two years ago. He stayed in the village, and after about a year announced that he thought it would be a good idea to have a large puja for world peace and the harmony of all things in general. The local people agreed, and preparations were started, taking a year to organise the format, logistics, build the large covered area and invite brahmin priests from all over North India to attend and participate in the ceremonies. The exact date and duration would have involved a good deal of astrology to determine the most auspicious timings to ensure the puja was successful.

There were many facets to the various ceremonies conducted over the eleven days of the puja. A brahmin friend from Manali, Loki, told us that prayers were to be offered to Vishnu as the preserver of life and well being, Suriya (sun) and Ganapati, another name for Ganesha. The fact that the village gods were in a line facing the fire pits and altars of the main area was neatly summed up by another friend, Ravi, who suggested that some gods are more important than others, and as the villagers pray to their own local deities, so those Gods in turn pray to higher Gods such as Vishnu.

I was surprised at the global perspective of the puja in praying for world peace. The people of the Kulu valley are not myopic, but their outlook on the world rarely goes much beyond Aut, the valley's gateway to the wider world, a rather distant place which in general holds little interest for them. The one major exception to this was after the Al Qaida attacks on the US, when many people in Old Manali were seriously worried about the firestorm that was about to be visited upon Afghanistan by the US military, a mere few hundred kilometers up the road. Prayers tend to be more concerned with things that affect peoples lives; rain, snow, harvests of grass and grain, and the health of family. In some ways, the valley seems separated from the rest of India and the world by a gulf far wider that the few hundred kilometers of the national highway.

By this time it was getting a bit late, and as nothing was going on and we had a chai invite with Totu-Ram the installation artist, we began to think about heading off. "Late" in this case meant 6PM, but time is extremely relative in India, and doubly so when you are in the distorted space time envelope of Left Bank Bus Time, a variation of the normal laws that govern the Universe that mean that however early you are you will miss the last bus to Manali, and with the additional side effect that there is never a rickshaw in Jagatsukh after 5 PM, except for those going in the opposite direction. On our last few trips to Jagatsukh we have been well in time for the last bus, but missed it anyway and ended up walking back the 6 KM to Manali in the dark. As Sajla is 10 KM, we really felt like catching a bus.

Before we went, we had a look at a second covered area next to the Vishnu temple, where a large crowd, mainly composed of women, was listening to a Pandit energetically reciting a mantra, and judging by his face and body language, very much oblivious to the crowd. Loki told us that the brahmin was reciting from the Bhagavad Gita, one of the holy Hindu scriptures, and that many of the pandits would take turns to do such recitations over the eleven days.

We got to Totu Ram's house and spent a few more minutes admiring his sculpture and taking pictures, saying hello to Shemshi, a woman from Manali who used to run a shop in the Manu market who had just arrived with her family and was on her way up to the puja.

There was no sign of Totu Ram, but while we were sitting there another woman came up and introduced herself as his daughter-in-law, who lived in the house next door. She told us to go on up to the first floor of the wood and stone house, where Totu Ram was apparently in his room. We climbed the stairs and removed our chappals. The old man was indeed in his room, but very peacefully asleep on his bed, so we started back down. No chance. His daughter-in-law insisted (against our protestations) that he be woken up to see us, and sent her son to wake him. He came out to the balcony looking far more chipper that I would have been if I'd been roused from a deep and pleasant afternoon kip.

He showed us into the simple room, with long carpets for sitting, several cupboards set into the wall, a small shrine containing a photograph of several local deities in a line and above that, an old single barrelled shotgun. We sat on the carpets while Totu Ram went off to the kitchen on one side to make some black tea, kept company by his grandaughters Sarita and Reena, who had come into take a look at us. Sarita is about 14 or so and attended the English medium public school in Aleo. She spoke really excellent english, and was full of beans, with a vivacious and outgoing character uncommon in the usually shy girls in the valley. Totu Ram came back with cups of sweet black tea and we sat talking about the puja, the village, and where we came from, and took a few digipix of the three together. Sarita provided an excellent translation of the tougher bits of the Hindi conversation.

An invitation for tea often entails looking at some family albums, and today was no exception, although Totu Ram had only two 10x8 black and white pictures; of himself and a foreign cyclist at Rohtang pass, and another of him and his wife seated with their grandson between them. The last picture, we were told, was taken in front of the dhaba he had run up at Rohtang some years ago, in the days when there were only half a dozen stone and tarpaulin dhabas at the pass, before the circus of dhabas and entertainments that currently services Indian tourists moved in.

He got out some of his treasured items that he had acquired over the years including a small and ingenious solid fuel camping stove, and a bottle of extremely dark honey, three years old according to the old man and full of medicinal value, which he poured a little of onto his palm and invited us to dab it with our fingers. It had a very deep taste, like normal honey but somehow richer and with an almost alchoholic aftertaste.

He began taking in Hindi about his water feature, parts of which we had trouble understanding till they were translated by Sarita. He had plans to replace the small god statue on the front with a larger one which was currently under construction. He described what the statue would be like when finished; slightly smaller than a normal palki, and with faces representing three gods, Vishnu, Ganpati and one we'd never heard of before that started with 'atara' (18) and seemed to be local in origin. As all this was translated, we got the slight impression that there was a punchline in here somewhere, and there was. The statue was half complete and sitting in a blue shed we could see opposite the house. The total cost would be 20,000 rupees, and the old man enquired via his grandaughter whether we fancied loaning him the money for the remaining work, strictly repayable. I've been asked for loans before; ten pence for sweets as a kid, a tenner for beer as an adult, but ten grand for building a god was as unusual as they come. Regrettably, we had to tell Totu Ram that our paise were getting a bit khatam, and that we couldn't oblige. He looked sad for a moment and then the conversation moved on to other things. I think his statue was more than a tourist attraction for his sculpture; it was something of a life work.

He got down the long barreled shotgun for us to see; a massively heavy weapon that must have produced quite a kick when fired, and a leatherman multi tool that some other tourist had given him sometime in the past. Then he got up, opened one of his cupboards and rummaged around, clearly looking for something, and on finding it, came back over and presented us each with a Kulu cap with slightly different decoration on the front. They were both a good fit, although, as they are always worn by men in the valley, the sight of Kirsten in one was slightly odd. We vainly checked ourselves in an old car wing mirror that was lying around, and the old man looked suitably satisfied at our evident pleasure.

Time was getting to the point where the Left Bank Time Warp would make even walking back a pain in the arse, so we asked Totu Ram what time the last bus should be. He squinted at his watch and said in about 10 minutes, so we decided to head off, with Totu Ram accompanying us as far as the road. The only vehicles around were those chartered for the day by families from Manali; no empty rickshaws waiting for a fare. The old man checked his watch again and said that the last bus should be due soon - at 7PM. I looked at my watch; 8PM. When I pointed out that it was now 8, Totu Ram looked at his watch, finally realising that it was over an hour slow. OK, so no last bus then. We shook hands and said our goodbyes to the Sculptor of Sajla and walked off on the (too damn) long road for Manali, with that 'not again' feeling, confident that an empty rickshaw going in the right direction was as likely as US foreign policy heading in the right direction. Midnight was looking like a comfortable bet for dinner in old Manali.

Whether or not the Vishnu Yagya has a profound effect on world peace remains to be seen, but it must have done something to the properties of the Left Bank Bus Vortex, because, not more than three or four minutes into the walk, a local bus came hammering round the corner, the driver evidently trying to break the time trial record for Naggar to Manali for knackered buses. He was going so fast, it took him 100 metres to brake to a halt after seeing us. We ran, and leapt aboard the open back door, surprised to find the bus half empty. Local faith in the last bus concept was obviously as shaky as ours. The driver was off again, going hell for leather and leaning on the horn to warn anything in his path that he was serious about making last orders at the Manu market chai shop. This must have been the 7 pm 'last' bus, evidently well delayed and the driver extremely keen on finishing work.

Manali town was quiet, as it has been since the end of the Indian summer tourist season, a fraction of the number of Delhi-wallahs promenading on the main street in among the Leh bound trucks and bleating rickshaws. We had a 'really last' chai in Manu market, and took the back way home via the orchards rather than argue the toss with the rickshaw drivers.

On the way we bumped into Shemshi and family again, just getting out of their Tata Sumo after returning from Sajla. We were invited into the house for the 973rd chai of the day. No problem, my limit is 1,000. We sat talking to her and her sister, and Shemshi's incredibly bright 9 year old son, who attends the Christian Mission run Daystar english medium school and has an insatiable appetite for geography. Not only an appetite, but a real memory, and after getting over a bit of shyness for the next hour we chatted about the layout of the world. The only question I asked that phased him concerned the whereabouts of Turkey, otherwise he managed to tell me a few things I hadn't known. Seeing a diagram of the solar system in a book, I pointed to a planet and asked which it was. Apart from a small disagreement over which one was Uranus and which Neptune, he ran them all off in order, with a bit of detail on each. He was surpised to learn that the first man on the moon was not an Indian, however.

Shemshi asked if we were going to Old Manali, and when we said we were, told us 'her driver' would take us up. We are not used to such offers and said we'd walk, but she was not having any of it. The Sumo was her husbands business and the Punjabi driver was waiting in the next room for us. More goodbyes and we headed off to Old Manali in a style to which we are not generally accustomed, a relaxing end to what, two hours before, had looked like a long and tedious walk home.

You never know what you're going to get when you leave the house up here, and sometimes, like today, what promises to be an average day just turns up full of strange surprises that make up a day more enjoyable than the sum of its parts.

12:59 AM by: Woody URL for this post

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neoncarrot is an online personal travelogue of our travel experiences, life in India, backpacking life and chai drinking in the Kulu Valley (also known as the Valley of the Gods) in the Indian Himalaya. The site contains travelling tips and hints, articles and essays, photo galleries, an online journal / weblog and some vital Indian statistics.
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