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Kyle Valenta

IMG_0753The two women in the adjacent garden, draped with thick woolens, braids hanging down from both sides of the skull, hitched together with a string between their shoulder blades. They pause their spade, their hoe, or their small hand trowel and admire a mating pair of Hoopoe birds, audaciously mohawked with tangerine and flashing zebra stripes, as the birds drill their beaks into the sheaves of a wooden shed. The garden stops. The women stop. I stop, though I don’t know if I was moving at all. And aside from the birds the only things that seem to move are the clouds, scraping their bottoms against jagged Himalayan teeth. For a moment it looks as if we are all characters playing out a scene in one great, gaping jaw of rock and sand. It looks like the world is trying to eat the sky.

___

At the airport there is a sign advising the steps one should take to avoid Acute Mountain Sickness. I know the steps: rest on day one and maybe on day two, as well; drink plenty of water; avoid strenuous activity; ascend to further altitudes with great caution and only after acclimatizing. I IMG_0767have landed in Leh, at 3500 meters, it’s a city that sits between dusty, ragged mountains which, in turn, sit in the lap of massive summits capped with snow. The air is short on oxygen. Should one feel dizzy, or get a headache, one should consider ceasing all activity. Should one become disoriented, confused, develop a dry cough which produces a foamy pink sputum, one should immediately seek medical attention. All of this can develop gradually or with unpredictable speed. Often the more insidious symptoms exhibit themselves at night when one’s breathing is less deep, so avoid sedatives, which is what one might naturally reach for because one also will likely experience disruptions in one’s sleep.

The first night I am sure that my breath stops every time I doze off. Also, I am dizzy. My hands get tingling cold and I’m certain that they are turning blue.

The following evening I develop a pain in my chest, behind my sternum. It could be indigestion from the chili sauce that I added to my Thentuk soup at lunch. It could also be a definite sign that my throat is closing, that my lungs and diaphragm are infuriated by the lack of oxygen in the atmosphere. Somehow I sleep. I wake the next morning and cough up pink. I am sure I am dying. The nice man at the Hayan Himalaya tour agency did advise me to see a doctor when I told him about this dull, clenching ache. He was probably right. I have got to find a hospital. I should have found one last night. Then I drowsily remember that I chewed several Pepto Bismol tablets the night before in a desperate attempt to alleviate the pain. Three Advil later in the day make the pain disappear. I have not died. Also, once I stop the altitude medicine Diamox, the dizziness and hand tingling subside.

By the third evening, I accept that I most likely will not die from AMS, but decide that I am not going to tempt fate. I avoid seeing far-flung beauties like the quaint Ladakhi villages of the isolated Nubra Valley or Pagong Tso—a lake surrounded by salt flats said to inspire near-tears in those who witness it by the light of a full moon, which it almost happens to be during my trip. They are too high. My bravery only functions at sea level. I do not want to die, alone, in a cold bed in the Himalaya.

___

 

IMG_0526 (1)I am lonely. The room at my guest house is huge and empty except for a low table, a plastic lawn chair, and two twin mattresses pushed together for a bed. I only sleep on one side of the bed, having left my partner David behind in New York. After nearly four years, and despite thinking that I love solitude above all else, it seems that I’ve lost the ability to comfortably sleep alone. The power goes out every hour or so and this can last for minutes or hours. I buy a bootleg of Seven Years In Tibet because in the black silence I do not know what to do with myself without television or the internet or a light by which to read a book. I waste the charge on my laptop down every night, watching Brad Pitt abandon his life in Austria for a dream that turns nightmare that turns dream. At least this is what I think happens. I never make it through the film, but only see it in waking snippets, usually when the score swells and a momentous event has transpired. I know enough to know that Brad Pitt’s German accent bothers me, and that one should not lie about injuries, physical or otherwise, when high in the mountains. And that the Dalai Lama, as a child, liked music boxes, as children often do.

___

 

No, I am not Buddhist.

            Then why are you visiting all of these monasteries?

            Because I chant.

            What do you say when you chant?

            Om mani padme hum. Nam myoho rengekyo.

            Those are Buddhist.

            I know.

I discover a small, modern temple at the top of a dun colored hill outside of town, adjacent a monumental stupa built by Japanese Buddhists. I am telling two British girls who have invited me to eat with them about the place when the inevitable line of questioning comes: are you Buddhist?IMG_0579 It’s hard for me to say what I am, where I stand, other than somewhere between a vehement atheist and an agnostic in search of a source and a meaning. I need more definite answers.

I hike back up the steep, switchback stairs the following day. I’m sure this hike is part of the process, as these temples always seem to be atop crags and rocky spires. I stare at the placid face of a gilded Maitreya Buddha. Om mani padme hum. Nam myoho renge kyo. I freely switch between the chants—Tibetan then Japanese and back—appreciating their similar syllabic cadence, however, I’m unsure if there are proscriptions against this sort of freewheeling. I switch between those Buddhist chants and Hail Marys because I know of no other way to approach holiness or the sacred. I chant until my jaw hurts, until my face aches. And when I stop, I notice the way my cheeks seem to vibrate, the way my head feels syrupy and light. I notice the comparative stillness in the rest of my body.

This must be what they mean by serenity.

And Indian family takes several photos of me, with flash, as I hold my eyes shut and clutch the string of wooden Mala beads.

Say the mantra.

Say it again.

___

I hang up the phone with David. I’ve been choking back tears. It has been hard to talk. I feel as though I’ve done something I shouldn’t when in truth I’ve done nothing wrong. The only thing I’ve done is decided to travel by myself, far from home. I’m regretting the choice. I hate that I can’t truthfully say that I am in awe every day, that I’m inspired every second. It is hard to be here, to be present, to take it all in—these huge mountains and churning turquoise Indus and the wide swaths of stars at night—the way everything feels so static and shaking at the same time.

IMG_0575I walk up the hill from the phone booth and see an advertisement for a company that drives its customers to Khardung La—the highest motorable road in the world—and then lets them ride mountain bikes down, back into town. It sounds awesome, and doesn’t require long stays at high altitudes. But I’m sure that this is something I should do with David. For a moment I forbid myself to have any fun. That moment lasts a few days. I restrict myself to the monasteries because I know he wouldn’t care if he missed that sort of thing.

I’ll come back and do the bikes some other time, though I know I’m not coming back at all.

___

I make traveler friends. The British girls, another man from the U.K. in town to teach, an Israeli, a couple Indians in Ladakh for trekking, a German guy, and a French man, as well, I think. We eat dinner together and sometimes lunch, too. At first I hate the conversations: where have you been, where are you going, what have you seen, what you should see, how much you’re paying IMG_0617for your guest house, how there are a million cheaper places, how there is always something better, more amazing, more peaceful, further away from the rest of the world. Everyone has their best, favorite places. Everyone has their knowledge of the world and its secrets.

But eventually, these friendships accelerate and pass the usual backpacker one-upmanship and note-comparing. Eventually the conversations turn towards families, towards the way they approve or do not of our collective wanderlusts, towards illicit international romances, towards how we feel as we celebrate a birthday so far from home and the people we love or think we love, how we latch on to one another so quickly in grungy little restaurants that serve killer Tibetan momos. We find out about another’s careers—their starting or failing or refusal to present themselves altogether. Inevitably, we are all flight risks, we have all come running from something and towards something else. This is what forces us together in these high mountain towns. This is what makes me stop feeling lonely.

___

 

From the big balcony attached to my room, I look out on the Zanskar Range. I’m saying thank yous to the world, to the skinny poplar trees and the valleys and ravines and impromptu mountain blizzards. In these eight days the moon has grown steadily brighter, on its way to an engorged show for Buddha Jayanti, which I will be celebrating in Bodhgaya, where the Buddha attained enlightenment. But as the moonlight grows louder, the million and one stars in the sky seem to die. They disappear and fade until on this last night it is just a blaring round hole in the inky sky. The light makes the snowcaps glow, makes the shadows heavier and the rest of world a dark quiver.

Now that it is time to leave Ladakh, I would like to stay. The enormity of this chance hits me all at once—that this is something once in a lifetime; that I’ve spent eight days wound up in baseless worries and simple human longings. I wish I could have put myself to the side. I would like another shot at all of this, way up here, in this part of the world so very cut off from the rest.

My skin prickles in the cold breeze. I wonder which glaciers the wind has passed, exactly which version of cold is caressing my arms. This is something I would like to know. Did it come from Tibet? From that holiest peak, Mount Kailash.

Tell me that’s where it came from; that the wind I’m feeling means something more than wind.


ONE

 

Delhi is hell. It is hot. It hits one in the face like the exhaust pipe of a long-haul trailer spewing thick blackness into a pristine sky. It smells like ruin.

IMG_0489The impression is delayed, of course, as the city puts one its best feet forward at first. The sparkling, new T3 at Indira Gandhi International—the second largest air terminal in the world, they point out with great pride—greets arrivals with four giant gold hands in lotus positions, and a shining, gleaming, blazing white expanse of an epic duty free. It all feels very proper and clean. But as one exits through the swish of sliding glass to a throbbing mass of hired drivers and calls for taxi, taxi, taxi, one first smells the flaming soot. The sweet burn of wood and diesel. The Delhi bonfire. And yet, the pulse races because this is it, the most foreign of foreign places. It is the rush of unknown possibilities.

Misters! Misters! Here please, yes! and suddenly we are in a car. We are being bounced from one side of the road to the other. Horns blare. Lights flash. The roads grow narrower and more crowded and the whole mass of traffic moves faster. Buildings zip past, haphazardly stacked on top of one another so that one concrete block looks as though it has tripped over another.

There is Red Fort! Purana Qila, Sir!

A mass of red, Agra sandstone lurks in the distance. We careen and weave until we slam to a dead stop. This is it, sirs, Hotel Tara Palace. There is a bonfire—an actual bonfire—of trash and books its appears. Emaciated children scamper off into the tight, unlit alleys, beyond this main road. Goats chew through knee-high rubbish heaps. Swarms of flies tick the skin—flies at night, I think. The smell of propane and burnt milk; the blaring horns; ringing bicycle bells; white eyes in brown faces glued to the to white bodies of the men who’ve just stepped out of a cab and into the crumbling, choked bazaar known as Chandni Chowk in Old Delhi.

IMG_0499We will be shoved and beckoned, Sir, please, you come look, you like, as we are pushed from behind for the sin of stopping, or run off of the crumbling sidewalk porticoes to hop like froggert across the choked boulevard through a broken iron fence to the other side in search of the liquor stand. We will be surrounded by a pack of screaming children putting stickers on us, clasping and unclasping their hands for money. We will be scolded in Urdu or Hindi or Punjabi for letting them do this.

On the Rajpath a parade-route boulevard connecting the houses of Lok Sabha, or Parliament, with the massive triumphal arch of India Gate, a man with a wicker basket will stop us—Sir! Sir! Please, you have look. Look! Look!—as he dashes the basket to the ground so that a hooded cobra springs up hissing and bobbing in the dusty, gold afternoon. Three transsexuals might walk by, giggling in their saris and heavy makeup. They are considered mystics here, or something like mild witches. They are hired for weddings to say prayers and tell fortunes and are known to aggressively solicit money for services, wanted or not. They might bee-line for us.

Sir, sir, where are you going? Says the rickshaw driver

Sir, that is such and such road. You are looking for such and such other road, says the nice, paunchy, balding man in a crisp oxford shirt. I am just helping you with your going. You go this way for nice pashminas, saris, ali baba pants. The ticket off is this way. I can take you. He follows and follows and finally gives up.

Packed like sardines against the window of the metro. The shoving in and out at the same time. Elbows. Forearms.

The way it costs different for Indians and for us—for soda, for sites of archeological significance, for rickshaws, and water and anything.

The way it made him never want to come back.

The way I swore I never would either.

 

TWO

 

Backpacker ghetto. Paharganj. Just west of the train station which is really an open-air sleeping facility for anyone in transit or not. Whole families pile on top of themselves and on top of their belongings. Everything seems held together by tarp and string. It is six months later and I’ve returned, telling myself that I have unfinished business with India. It harbors secrets. It made me run to quickly. I must know why.

This way, sir.

            I will take you to your platform, sir.

            That office is closed, sir, I will show you new office.

            You need to come this way for that train, sir.

IMG_0495Backpacker ghetto, because this time I’m not staying in Old Delhi and I promise myself that I will only stay in this city as little as possible, and if a night can be avoided I will avoid it, but that can never be the case because everything in India runs through Delhi. So I stay on the cheap in an airless, windowless room in Hotel Cottage Yes Please, a name I love. At least it is clean. At least the air conditioning works. At least is feels separate from the chaos of the bazaar outside where anything bootleg a mind could conjure is for sale.

But they have no rooms on my next pass through Delhi I must find somewhere else, somewhere recommended by a hostel booking website, a website with real and honest reviews according to their banner. Another windowless room, barely fitting a bed. A room up steep, dark, wet stairs with holes in the wall opening onto the stench of the alley and open sewer below. I spend as little time there as possible, afraid to touch anything. I wake in the morning to find a bedbug, dead, surrounded in my blood, having been crushed by my head in the course of the night. I am sure I will have to put everything into plastic bags when I get home. I’ve lived in New York City for nine years. I’ve never seen one and according to the billboard and subway signs there, those fuckers are an epidemic.

Delhi. Damn it.

 IMG_0492

THREE

 

I haven’t stopped talking about India, so I am back. I’ve collected a holy trinity of visits by now. Ask me why I keep coming back and I have ten thousand answers because I love this place and I hate this place. I think this country has some secret teaching, some small pebble that is the key to setting things straight—me and the thousands of backpackers that stream through T3 every month.

Being back means Delhi. And As I’ve seen enough red sandstone mausoleums and forts and shrines, as I’ve been hassled in the outdoor mall of Connaught Place, as I’ve been jostled amongst every living beast in the world in the strangled, collapsing alleys of Old Delhi, as I’ve tried slumming it with the dreadlocked hippies in Paharganj, I’ve decided to see some new aspect of the city. It’s a neighborhood I’ve heard about and read about, but never seen as it lays way out in the never ending sprawl. Hauz Khas Village—south of the madness, surrounded by trees. Artsy, say the blogs. Hip, writes the Lonely Planet. And what that means is that while it is still India—still a dusty mess of a crumbling road, still concrete blocks stacked too high on one another, still a bit fly-riddled and sometimes the air is punctured by the scent of rotting vegetal matter—it is westernized. It’s the Williamsburg of Delhi. It has cafes and art galleries and bars and swank restaurants and intentionally grungy ones and little shops packed tight with bright, kitschy wallets and shoulder bags trimmed with leather, and smart t-shirts emblazoned with the wry winks a New Yorker would appreciate. Half of it looks out onto crumbling Mughal ruins and tombs and beyond that a lake—a clean lake with swans and ducks—and manicured paths and shrubbery and peacocks and monkeys and owls and flowering vines and roses. It is gated off from the rest of the world—rickshaws can’t get in; honking, hulking Ambassador cabs are forbidden. In fact, no cars may enter unless with the permission of the village.

IMG_0502So just like that, Delhi becomes immediately easier and more palatable. My hotel serves fish and washes their vegetables with filtered water and has local artists hammered up all over the walls and oversized pillows are dashed on wide benches and the wireless internet works and the air conditioner, too. So I have come all this way, come to this place I swear I need because it is exactly the opposite of my ordered life—this place where gods jump off of every surface or can be in any stone or tree, where one can always smell incense and sandalwood on the air, where the smell of burnt milk means wafts down wide alleys as a temple bell clangs into the heavy air, where the world is a magical realist bonanza—I’ve come all this way to finally say I love Delhi because of its proximity to my own life: its New York comforts and American happinesses.

And, like that, I hate it all over again.