Chapter 144: This gun is not for me

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Paharganj, New Delhi

Delhi was where I started my trip in India, and, in one way or another, it’s where my trip would end.

I was staying in a small, haphazardly built guest house in Connaught Place, a big busy double sided ring of posh shops lining a large traffic circle with a park in the middle. I had found the guest house nestled in the inner ring, where the other shops had their back entrances and all the fake tourist information offices ran their scams. The guest house’s little twisting staircases and overgrown vegetation on the rooftop patio made it feel like a treehouse, out of place in the grimy and mercantile streets. I told myself I bought the room because of price, but it was really because of the treehouse.

At the end of a long day, I was walking back to my room when I heard someone shouting. I turned to my left to find five men standing on one side of the street. One of them was gesturing wildly at me to come over, and had clearly seen me turn to look. They were all well dressed, wearing designer jeans and nice jackets. Against my better judgment, I walked over to their side of the street.

“Hey maaaan, where you from?” The one who had gestured over was tall and slightly intoxicated.

“The US. I’m an American.”

His eyes narrowed, his body straightened slightly, and said, “An American? No offense, but I fucking hate Americans. You smoke?”

He offered me a cigarette. I took it, and we both lit up. It wasn’t the time to pass on a kind gesture.

“Americans man, they fucking suck. You know what I hate about Americans? Somebody comes to India they’re treated like fucking guests, man, because they’re in our country. And what happens when I go to America? When I go to New York on business? I’m treated like a fucking terrorist. Like I’ve got a fucking bomb?”

The four other men standing with us weren’t involved in the conversation. They seemed preoccupied with the street in either direction. I gave a quick glance to see what they were looking at, but the street was mostly empty. Otherwise, my attention was focused solely on the philosopher. I tried changing the topic.

“So, what kind of business takes you to New York?”

He paused to look at me, took a drag on his cigarette, then looked down the street with the rest of them. “You know, man, … business.”

It’s at this moment that my gaze shifted to the man standing to the philosopher’s left. In the last gasp of dusk, I noticed a medium sized handgun stuffed into the back of his jeans, mostly hidden by his jacket.

My mind immediately went in several directions. The first was my emotional reaction to seeing a gun, any gun, in any situation. The second was the inevitable logical response.

One. You don’t need a handgun to take money from a tourist, as a clever lie is often more than enough. Two. As deserted as this alley might be, there are still tons of people around, including cars and taxis. Three. I’m as white as a snowy day compared to these people, and conservatively 1/4 of the people on the street are staring at me at any given time. Four. The philosopher was somewhat drunk, and everyone else seemed bored. These four things combined in my head to one simple, calm conclusion.

This gun is not for me.

The philosopher was still talking about New York, telling a story about someone who called him a “sand-nigger”. Intensely aware of everyone and everything around me, I found myself agreeing that George Bush and the man who called him a sand-nigger were both “ugly fucking Americans.”

A car pulled up next to us and four men got out. One man started eyeing me up and down, introduced himself and shook my hand. He asked the philosopher a question in Hindi, and seemed calmed by the short response. I was by myself, in a foreign country, in a back alley talking to a drunk man who “fucking hates Americans” while standing next to his handgun toting friends. I decided it was time to go.

“Hey man, I’ve got to get going, it’s past my bedtime. Thanks for the cigarette.”

“Any time, man, take it easy.”

We shook hands, I glanced at the man who had the gun, found him staring straight back at me, I turned my back and calmly walked away.

Chapter 143: At the Mountains of Madness

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View Gokyo-Ri in Google Earth / Maps

… or, The story of Sam’s failed summit of Gokyo Ri

The alarm went off at 4:30am, piercing the darkness with an incessantly irritating beeping. Dave got up and started donning warm clothing in the dark, and I pulled down the wool hat over my ears. I had slept in long underwear, pants, a sweatshirt, socks and a hat, but the cold always has a way of finding its way in. I sat up and surveyed our deconstructed packs, illuminated occasionally by Dave’s wandering head lamp. In the room next door, I could hear either my Dad or my brother Ed moving, opening and closing bags.

We had been hiking for seven days through Sagarmatha National Park in Nepal, up from the hillside landing strip at Lukla. Our guide, Ram, had led us up to Namche Bazaar, a regional hub where we spent several sickness and Scrabble filled acclimatization days. The general rule of thumb in hiking at high altitude is that you have to take a whole day to ascend 1000 vertical feet, and we were pushing our luck with our rigorous schedule. We had skipped an acclimatization day in order to attempt the summit of Gokyo Ri, which, at 17,575ft above sea level, was higher than any mountain in the continental United States, and at least 3,000ft higher than any of us had ever been.

Altitude affects you in subtle ways. The air becomes thinner, and you have to breath harder to bring in the same amount of oxygen. Your body doesn’t quite figure it out all the time, and will breath in too little air, causing some of us to wake up in the middle of the night gasping for breath. Hiking at high altitudes becomes a question of steps-per-breath gearing. Most days I would take 2 footfalls per complete inhale and exhale. If the grade evened out and I was walking on level ground, I’d up it to 4 step per complete inhale and exhale. If it became steeper, 1 step per breath. Anything to keep from overexerting myself and getting dizzy. The altitude gave me a consistently rapid pulse, a persistent headache, killed my voracious appetite, and gave me a cough I have to this day.

We were staying at a guest house in Gokyo, a tiny town next to the mammoth Ngozumpa Glacier. It was the final day of our ascent, and we had planned on leaving town at 5am to hike the remaining 1,500 vertical feet to the summit of Gokyo Ri (aka Gokyo Peak). It wasn’t a big hike by any standard (especially standards set by the surrounding mountains), and if it had been at sea level it would have almost been trivial. I was worried. The day before I had had a lot of trouble making it into town, and had to take more breaks than anyone else. My two other memories of hiking at high altitude were Mt Timpanogos in Utah, and Mt Massive in Colorado. In both cases I just stuck to a low gearing and powered up to the peak. I had never failed to make a summit.

I finished lacing up my shoes and quickly put back on my gloves. The air outside was approximately 10F, and the walls were plywood with no insulation. At these towns everything had to be carried in on the backs of Yaks or humans, often loaded to capacities that defied comprehension. We had carried our own gear up the mountain, with packs weighing from 9kg (mine) to 16kg (Dave’s) to 4kg (our guide, Ram). We had no porters or Sherpas to carry our loads, but our primary enemy was the altitude, which presented problems porters can’t quite solve.

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Gokyo, Solukhumbu District, Nepal

The morning was starry, and we walked along the trail slowly and mostly in silence. The landscape was barren, alien, with no trees or shrubs. The lake near us was mostly ice covered, and when the wind picked it up it created slight reverberations along the ice cracks that would build until they created punctuated moaning noises. They sounded a bit like whale songs. And they were loud, filling the valley, echoing up the mountainside and the nearby glacier.

The altitude was getting to me, and I slowed my breathing until it was 2 complete breathes per step. I had barely ascended 100 vertical feet. My Dad and Ed were up ahead, and Dave was walking with me. The sun was beginning to warm the eastern edge of the sky. From the top of Gokyo Ri, you can see the sun rise over the highest mountain in the world, Mt Everest.

I took a bad step and stumbled, nearly falling into the side of the trail. I stopped to catch my breath, and Dave flashed me a quick look of concern before passing me on the trail to keep moving, primarily to keep warm. I kept going, but couldn’t make it more than forty feet before I had to take another break to catch my breath. I slowed my breathing until it was 3 complete breathes per step.

Time was moving very slowly. Each step involved momentous effort. Each breath hurt my diaphragm, sore and exhausted from the forced breathing I had been doing the previous 7 days. I was wearing every single item of warm clothing I possessed. Slung over my shoulder was a small day bag containing my camera and a bottle of iodine treated water. I’d stop occasionally to drink, more as an excuse to breathe than because of actual thirst.

I was fighting several competing forces. One on hand, I couldn’t get air fast enough to my lungs to keep walking without taking breaks. On the other hand, it was too cold to stop moving. The dizziness was starting to affect my stomach, and several times I had to fight back the urge to vomit. I was very awake and alert, but there was nothing I could do to override my body’s reactions to what was happening around me. I slowed my breathing until it was 4 complete breathes per step.

The thought, which had been weaseling its way into my brain for the last 100 vertical feet, finally came legitimately to the front of my mind. I couldn’t move fast enough to stay warm without getting sick. There wasn’t any way around it. I was too cold, and I was too dizzy, and I had no option other than turning around.

Sitting on a rock for several minutes, growing colder, I looked down at the whale-song lake, the massive glacier across the valley, the snow capped peaks and the alien countryside. Above me, I could see four bodies standing together in the morning twilight. I tried motioning that I was going to go down, and blinked my head lamp several times, but I saw Dave start hiking downhill towards me. I cleared my throat, and with as much energy as I could spare or muster, yelled, “I’m going down! I’m fine! Take a picture from the top for me!”

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Sam, higher than the continental US

I had made it about 250 vertical feet up from town, about 1/6th of the way to the summit, which put my maximum elevation at almost exactly 16,000 feet above sea level. I’d never before turned around on a peak attempt, but my pride couldn’t argue with the cold and altitude. The rest of my party made it to the top of Gokyo Ri successfully, though both my Dad and Ed said they thought about turning around even as close as 20 minutes away from reaching the summit. Dave appears to be the offspring of a mountain goat and a sea otter; he only complained of the cold.

When you climb a large mountain, you put yourself in harms way. Why you do so is a very personal matter, but to me the climb is never strictly about making the summit. It’s about stress, strength, perseverance, nature, humanity, endurance, failure, success, loneliness, companionship, life and ultimately death. I find God in nature, in the jagged granite peaks, the gushing streams and rivers, the whipping winds of the desert, and the forever back and forth of the waves in the sea. But mother nature doesn’t care about how much insight and peace you find; occasionally she’ll just kill you for not paying attention.

It hurt my pride to turn around on Gokyo Ri, but it could have hurt a lot more to continue.

Chapter 142: Maybe Tomorrow

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Contrary to popular belief, the Hindu cow is a remarkably driven animal. Its goal is to do, or move, as little as physically possible, and it sets towards this goal with a ferocious determination that would be the envy of Olympic athletes and board room executives (if only they’d think of it). This realization came to me as I studied a cow that was standing in the middle of the road, calmly chewing its cud, at peace with everything and at one with the Universe, completely ignoring the cars on either side of it honking as if their lives depended on it.

Goa is one of the Indian states that lets the Hindu cow in all of us shine. I set out along the road towards the beach and away from the honking cars, ferociously determined to do as little as physically possible for the rest of the day. A string of taxi-wallahs failed to tempt me with their offers of affordable transportation.

“You want taxi?” one asked with a half-moon smile so large that it made me think he was about to break out in dance. I said no with a head-bob, frown and a somewhat dismissive hand gesture that had become second nature. “It’s okay, Maybe tomorrow,” he grinned.

My Keen sandals were off the instant I hit the sand. I started looking for a peaceful beach cafe in which I could pass the time reading Siddhartha in between dips in the 80 degree water, but knew I had my work cut out for me. Arembol is renowned as a hippie beach, but hippies invariably drag noisy business opportunities behind them, and the sand was packed with tourists in all directions. Unlike the seemingly deaf and mindlessly serene Hindu cow, I wanted my peace and quiet.

To the north was a somewhat substantial hill that’s a popular sunset viewing and charras (hashish) smoking location. Beyond it was a series of little beachless coves that I knew eventually led way to further beaches. There, I would find my peace. I journeyed through the hot sun around the hill, beyond the coves, to find another identically tourist infested beach. However, the trail I was on continued onto the next hill, and I likewise continued.

I ended up walking for about an hour north of Arembol, mostly in the company of a Czech traveler on holiday. We talked about living in Alaska during our heat-induced water breaks (he had lived in the Alaskan range for four months), and slowly worked our way past the endless coves into an almost completely deserted beach. There wasn’t more than half a dozen tourists within sight, and there were plenty of empty cafes with bored waiters.

The water was warm but not hot, the breeze cooling but not cold, and for one of the first times in India I went more than an hour without hearing a human voice. I could have been there for an afternoon, I could have been there a decade. I was so relaxed it took me until the walk back to realize I had lost my sunglasses in the surf.

The coves just north of Arembol are filled with little shops selling the things that all the shops in Arembol sell; scarves, bongs, sunglasses, t-shirts, drums, etc. I stopped at one to check out their sunglasses collection, but as I already know quite well, I have a massive cranium that most sunglasses don’t fit. The shops further towards Arembol that saw me stop all attempted to beckon me in with offers of cheap t-shirts. “Maybe tomorrow,” I offered.

I slowly walked along the beach back towards our guest house. Fishermen were active along the shore, though not in boats. About five of them would drag a big net out into the water slowly, being careful not to splash or make too much fuss. One would stand on shore holding one end, and the others would sweep out a large crescent in the water as deep as they could stand. They’d spread out until the net was fully extended, then the men on land would start pulling in the net. The men standing in the water would manage the net as it came ashore, and the fish that would up caught in the commotion would be sold as the catch of the day for the local restaurants.

Wandering inland, I eventually came to our guest house. We had arrived after all the normal rooms had been booked, and instead landed what was essentially a shack on the roof. It had a locking door and somewhat sturdy walls, but it was still essentially a shack on the roof. This was made up by the $6 pricetag, the decent and social restaurant, and matronly owner, Piya. She took care of her guests as any good mother would, making quick work of laundry, problems and the question of our future plans. Before I had even stepped into the courtyard she had me spotted and was headed towards me.

“Sam, will you be checking out tomorrow, or staying another day?”

I was completely and totally unprepared for this question. Dave and I had been traveling under a pretty well defined plan up until Goa (based on train schedules), but that had all sort of fallen apart once we hit the beach.

“Uhhhh …..”

She smiled patiently, and asked, “… Maybe tomorrow?”

We did end up leaving the next day, but there was no way to know that then. All I knew then was that I had just spent an entire day without a watch, clock, calendar, schedule or plan in mind, and I wouldn’t have done it any other way.

Chapter 141: The Malabar Express

My peaceful slumber was shaken by a slow droning noise. This noise wasn’t the train wheels noisily and steadily going along the track as we sped along the countryside. No, this noise is almost more pervasive in the Indian train system. A simple soundtrack to bring you straight from a fantastic dream into the reality of the present.

“Chai! Chai! Chai! Chai! Chai!”

Indian chai salesmen have developed a droning announcement as they walk through the train cabins. Other train salesmen, such as coffee, vegetable cutlets, water, other beverages, each of them have a somewhat distinctive call as they wander the length of the train. However, none are as otherworldly as the droning, monotone “chai-chai-chai-chai” of the traveling chai salesmen.

I must have leaned out of my bunk to watch the salesman approach my end of the sleeper car, because as soon as he made it to me, he stopped and asked, in perfect British English, “Would you like some chai, sir?”

Indian sleeper trains are everything I was told Indian train travel wasn’t. They’re clean, friendly, reasonably safe, and have reserved seating. Outside of the fact that you have to book train travel somewhat in advance (compared to Europe), the sleeper trains are the ideal way to travel medium to long distances in India. There aren’t any cabins or closed doors; each sleeper bunk is open to the aisle, and this makes for quite the lively atmosphere at times.

Hot cup of chai in hand (and 6 rupees poorer), I climbed down from my bunk to find Dave engrossed in Lonely Planet India. We had the aisle seats, so there were two levels, a bed on each, with the bottom level folding up to form two chairs and a small table. Across from the aisle seats was the 6-pack: three bunks on either side of a small shared space, the middle bunk folding down to create the backrest of the bottom bunk, forming three seats on each side.

When I had started my mid-afternoon nap, the entire train was deep in a mid afternoon nap. However, within the 5 minutes after I woke up, the 6-pack across from mine had become THE party destination for a large group of traveling Indian businessmen, with no fewer than 12 men crowded into the space for six. They were holding newspapers and talking in a continuous stream of loud Hindi or Malayalam.

After a while of trying to mentally compete with the businessmen by reading books, we eventually gave up and decided to play a game of cards. But these weren’t just ordinary cards. These were Barack Obama playing cards, the backs of each card emblazoned with his smiling mug, purchased in the patriotic insanity of Dulles International Airport. We started playing a variation of Crazy 8’s called crazy eight countdown, where instead of winning when you run out of cards, you draw 7, then 6, and all the way down to 1 before you win. Not quite an intellectually intensive game, but its an easy way to pass the time. Across the cabin, much note was made of our card playing, with constant stares and much banter centered around the isolated recognizable word “Obama”.

After a game or two, we put the deck down and returned to reading guidebooks and/or staring out the window towards the moving Maharashtra countryside. The man opposite the aisle from me was staring intently at the deck, and eventually asked if he could look at it.

Each card has an associated Democrat or Democratic supporter caricature, such as Hillary, Al Gore, Jon Stewart, Oprah or the Big B himself. The first businessman rifled through the set, occasionally laughing at one he recognized and passing the card to a friend. Eventually the card perusing occupied all six of the remaining businessman’s attention.

I noticed one man with a peculiar expression holding one card. He looked a mixture of hurt and confused, and turned to me and asked, “Why did they make George Bush a joker?!” He was holding one of the two jokers, the first being W, the second being John McCain.

“A lot of people in the US don’t really like George Bush.”

“Well, I like George Bush!!” he stated as defensively and as conclusively as he could. Several of his friends stifled some, but not all, of their laughter.

I was leaning into the aisle at this point, and turned to my right to see two girls staring at me from the next compartment. They were around my age, and were wearing deep maroon and red saris, respectively. I turned to my left to see if they were looking past me. Empty hallway. I turned to the right again to find the same stares, this time with smiles attached. I repeated my left-right head turn routine several more times, to ever increasing smiles, before they finally got embarrassed and disappeared.

Dave had entered into a guidebook discussion with the businessmen about our future plans. They had been interested in the Lonely Planet descriptions of Fort Cochi, Kerala, their home town, but had moved quickly onto critiquing our planned route south. We were going to Arembol, one of the larger hippie beaches in Goa. We had booked the train further south than we needed, and they told us to get off at a more northern station so as not to waste our time. However, since we didn’t know what time the train was scheduled to roll through the station, we waited for the next stop to find out what station we were near, and therefor how many we had left.

The train slowed into a small station, and neither of us could see a station sign from our side of the train. The train doors normally stay open on either end of each train car, so I got up and walked to one end of our car to try looking out the other side of the train. When I came to the door, I was greeted by a very confused Indian man, a closed door, and loud pounding and unintelligible shouting from the other side.

The Indian man was trying to open the door, but something was blocking the way. I noticed a little latch at the top corner of the door that falls down when it closes, and motioned to the Indian man to let me try. I managed to get the latch up, and pry open the massive door, to find a very angry 60 year old British man holding a large bag.

“Bloody hell! Thank god we have focking caucasians around ‘ere or this focking country would fall apart!”

He climbed up onto the train and pushed past the somewhat stunned Indian man and myself to the compartment next to mine. I managed to spurt something about “To be fair I didn’t know what I was doing either”, but I don’t think he heard me or cared. I leaned out the door, confirmed the station, and started to return to my cabin, sharing a raised eyebrows head-bob with the Indian man.

The Brit had booted one of the Indian girls from his reserved seat, and had forced the family they were traveling with to massively reorganize their belongings so he could have his bag directly underneath him. When I started to pass through the cabin, most of the family and the two girls looked at me with expressions ranging from “Help us” to “I would not judge you if you punched him”. I gave them the most reassuring head-bob I could, and managed to parlay a bump in the track into a good shoulder jostle of the Brit.

Less than twenty minutes later, the train started to slow, and Dave and I picked up our packs and headed to the end of our train car. I opened the door, and we spilled out into the cool air of the train station. Alongside us, and with the apparently sole intent of seeing us off, were half a dozen business men, one of the chai sellers, several children, mothers and fathers, and the two girls from the next compartment. We shook multitudes of hands, received last minute directions, advice and fingers pointed at maps, and as we walked away caught several blown kisses.

The key to Indian train travel is remembering the main mantra about travel in general: it’s not the destination, it’s the journey.

Namaste!

To anyone keeping track of my life via this blog, the reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.

I’m in the midst of a 12 day trek through the Khumbu region of the Himalayas (notably the home of a little mountain called Everest), along with my travel buddy Dave, my brother Ed and my dad, Tom. I’ve got lots written in my journal, and even more floating around in my head. However, the satellite internet connection pricing plans aren’t conducive to my normal (“high quality”) writing, so I’m going to have to wait to type them up until the trek is over.

Until then, you’ll have to busy yourselves with my outstanding catalog of insight.

(posted at 11,300 feet)