11 October 2014

Ill on the road: Mr Peter the patient patient (Part 2)

Sometimes, when a desperately desired goal draws near, the effort required to reach it increases exponentially. That's how I feel after the taxi drops me outside the hospital and I shuffle into reception, the last of my physical and mental energy draining out of me into the Delhi heat. No one's attending the desk. I try a nearby counter but they have little English and just direct me back to the vacant reception desk. I can do without this. But a young man appears; I must go to the Emergency Department in the next building, he says, pointing. I creep out the door and across to Emergency, lean on the desk and say I need to see a doctor.

A few questions, then I'm taken to a gurney where a gentle, smiling orderly helps me lie down. A doctor and nurse arrive quickly; I'm questioned, prodded, and assessed; tests are arranged. A nurse inserts a cannula into a vein in the back of my right hand. Most of the rest of the day consists of visits from various doctors, all of whom ask similar questions to which I try my best to give consistent, accurate answers; of being connected to drips; of having blood samples taken; of being prodded -- one doctor palpates my abdomen with such vigour I wonder if he's trying to take a biopsy with his bare hands. I keep my yelp moderately dignified.

The smiling orderly comes with hospital pajamas and helps me change, then eases me back down onto the gurney. He puts his hand on my shoulder in solidarity and says something in Hindi; I have no idea what he's saying but understand him perfectly, and his kindness threatens to undo me. I hold it together and thank him.

On a gurney opposite me lies an ancient, yellowed woman, her eyes closed and sunken into the dark hollows of their sockets, her breathing shallow and strained. She looks to be barely alive, and compared to whatever affects her, my own illness seems trivial. On the gurney next to her, a man groans and, somewhere down the corridor, someone screams. A monitor bleeps regularly and monotonously -- the kind of sound that could be used to torture a prisoner. When a nurse checks to see I'm still O.K, I ask to sit up; she adjusts the bed and at my request places my bag next to me. I retrieve my pen and notebook and write a little. I don't like labels -- I prefer to say 'I write' rather than 'I'm a writer' -- but these roughly scribbled notes fulfil a commitment I made years ago to write every day, and in maintaining this perfect record even under these circumstances I consider I'm justified in calling myself a writer. Of course, what I see as dedication, others might see as obsession -- harmless enough, but ridiculous. Maybe they're right.

The gentle orderly comes and wheels me to the ultrasound unit. This involves a short trip between buildings, into the pleasant heat of the evening -- I've been continuously cold in triage, even after my kind orderly has tucked a blanket around me -- and I look up at the darkening sky with its tinge of orange. Crows fly overhead, black silhouettes, free to fly where they will. The sight fills me with joy and longing and hope; I'll get through this, I'll once again share the world with crows and kites and rose-ringed parakeets and the ubiquitous pigeons; I'll see babblers and palm squirrels again in the Deer Park, and maybe barbets or even the grey hornbill in the Lodi Gardens. Then the door swings shut behind us and we carry on to Ultrasound.

I'm given a thorough going-over. The doctor spends a long time going back and forth over the painful area, then calls someone else to confer. Part of the lower bowel has thickened, she says, most likely because of inflammation. This means a CT scan will be ordered, and the preparation for this is one of the most unpleasant experiences I've endured for many years.

A nurse wearing a mask appears at my bedside, clutching two one-litre bottles of pale pink, frothy fluid.
   'You must drink two litres in two hours,' she says, waving the bottles at me. She repeats her instructions, holding up two fingers for emphasis: 'Two litres in two hours.'
She puts the bottles on my tray. I look at the soapy froth and just know this won't be pleasant. I don't know the half of it.

It tastes like disinfectant mixed with dish-washing liquid, and for all I know, that's what it might be. I time my gulps, sometimes managing three in quick succession, sometimes just two. I want this over and done with, so I force the vile fluid down, finishing the first bottle ahead of schedule. The pace slows for the second bottle, though, because it's so nauseating each gulp makes me feel like vomiting. Surely there must be a better way? Once again, sheer will-power keeps me carrying on, but I wonder about people who simply can't manage this awful requirement -- how much is really necessary for a good CT scan? With about a third of the second bottle to go, I gulp another mouthful and somehow suppress the gag reflex so I can swallow the foul fluid. Involuntarily I shudder and grimace, and look up to see an orderly watching me as she waits by a wheelchair. She smiles, and I grimace and shudder again, deliberately this time, and say, 'It's horrible!' and she shakes with laughter -- not unkind, but understanding, and I feel a little better. I finish it all well within the two hours and the nurse with the mask comes and gives me the thumbs up; beneath her mask, she's smiling, as if proud of me.

After that, I couldn't care less what they do to me, which is just as well, considering the indignities I'm put through for the scan itself. This is when I start thinking about dignity and wondering why what would have horrified me before my illness now seems trivial. All I want is to know the scan's successful, and the more thoroughly they prepare me, the better.

The operator tells me the machine will ask me to hold my breath and I must do as it says. What he doesn't tell me is that if the machine does indeed issue the instruction, it must be in Hindi, because all I hear from time to time is something incomprehensible. Fortunately, it doesn't matter, and when I finally collect the report over a week later, I'm astonished at the clarity and resolution of the images.

Back on my gurney in triage, I'm visited by a doctor who breaks the good news to me.
   'It looks like appendicitis,' he says, 'so we'll start getting you ready for a laparoscopic appendectomy.'
   'That's great news,' I reply, aware of the irony of joy at having my appendix whipped out.
The doctor smiles and agrees this would be a simple and straightforward solution, but he points out they still want to do further testing to be sure they've correctly diagnosed the problem. This is when I'm so grateful I'm in one of India's best hospitals. Who knows what would have happened if I'd been diagnosed and treated in some place less thorough, with rudimentary facilities? I'd probably have lost my appendix and continued to deteriorate. The outcome doesn't bear thinking about. Here, though, in the hospital that can list as patients some of India's most important people, the doctors take no chances.

However, while appendicitis still seems likely, the preparations for surgery continue, and I'm taken for an echocardiogram. Usually, I imagine, this would be comfortable enough, but I've lost so much weight I'm nothing more than skin over skeleton, and at times the pressure of whatever it is he's rolling over my ribs feels like being massaged with a knuckle-duster. I keep quiet and put up with it. Something seems to worry him, though, and he calls someone else in; they keep pointing to blue and red flashes on the monitor. I learn later that I have a small amount of fluid around the heart, almost certainly related to the infection; fortunately, this isn't serious and I'm cleared for surgery.

That surgery doesn't go ahead, however. Late in the afternoon an administrator arrives, saying I'm to be admitted but I must pay 20,000 rupees deposit. I tell him my insurance company will pay; he asks for the name but isn't interested in contact details or policy number. I still have to pay myself, he says. Fortunately, my credit card works and I spend my first night in a room with three other patients, up to a dozen visitors, and no privacy whatsoever. In the morning I'm visited by a doctor who updates me on the test results -- my total leucocyte count (TLC; the concentration of white blood cells, which fight infections), is about double the normal figure, he says. The gastroenterologist also arrives, and this is when I learn of the change of plan. After a closer review of the CT scan, he says, they've decided the inflammation of the appendix is secondary, and the likely problem is an infection around the junction of the small and large intestine. They want to do a colonoscopy.

This, he says, means they'll give me a laxative in the evening, and when I'm 'crystal clear' (his phrase), they'll do the colonoscopy in the morning. Fine, I think, do whatever's necessary. If I have to make 7 or 8 trips to the toilet in the night, I'll manage that.

What I don't realise is that the laxative isn't a simple dose of something I can swallow in one go -- it's another two one-litre bottles of some other fluid within two hours. This vile stuff is even worse than that for the CT scan; it tastes like salty, lemon-scented floor polish. Don't ask me how I know what floor polish tastes like; I just know that with every mouthful my brain shrieks, 'Floor polish! Floor polish!' I try replacing the thought with 'Peach schnapps!' which I've never tried but had heard was revolting, but it doesn't work. The weird association with floor polish is too strong.

I force down the first bottle but fall behind schedule. Given I've eaten almost nothing for about four days, surely I don't need to swallow the lot? By the fourth trip to the toilet, I can guarantee I contain nothing solid whatsoever, but, doing my best, I keep attempting to swallow what tastes like distilled evil. Halfway through the second bottle, however, I realise another mouthful will turn it from a laxative to an emetic. I stop drinking it. The report I see later lists the quality of the preparation as 'Good'.

Once again, what I'd have thought of as mortifyingly undignified leaves me completely unmoved. It's all necessary, all irrelevant as far as my dignity's concerned. The sedative helps, too, and I remember almost nothing of the procedure, which I later find slightly disappointing because I'm interested to know what they're finding. Perhaps if I hadn't been sedated, though, I might have felt differently.

All this time, I've been on various drips, mostly broad spectrum antibiotics and saline with dextrose. My TLC returns to normal. My gentle orderly has been replaced with one who marches around like a bantam rooster, erect and bossy -- 'Change!' he says, handing me clean pajamas -- but he's efficient and well-meaning. Most of the staff call me 'Mr Peter', and I don't correct them -- I like the sound of it. The cannula comes partly loose; I point this out to a nurse, who adds extra tape that doesn't work and eventually the cannula comes out completely. She puts a new one into a vein in my left arm. That's one advantage of being so emaciated -- all the veins beneath the skin are clearly visible. The call button doesn't work, so to call a nurse if I need a drip disconnected, I have to get out of bed and push the button on the wall. I then have to repeat the procedure to remind them to reconnect the drip. The phone by my bed has been blocked, and when my friend Sally visits she arranges to have it unblocked so she and my brother and perhaps others can call me. A technician comes, checks the phone and indicates it's now fixed. It isn't, and still no one can get through. All these I can deal with, however, and I use these inconveniences to practise being patient.

On the second day, as I lie patiently waiting for whatever will be done to me next, an elegant middle-aged woman enters the room and introduces herself.
   'I'm from the New Zealand High Commission,' she says, and is on my case after receiving a phone call from my brother in New Zealand. Ramita asks how she might help, so I point out the problems the hospital's having getting in touch with the insurance company. After repeated attempts, I'd finally managed to get someone to record my policy number and the contact phone number, but the problem seems to lie with identifying the local, Indian insurance provider that should act on behalf of the New Zealand company. Besides, an administrator tells me, she's rung the New Zealand number several times and has yet to receive a response from my case manager. Needless to say, this has added stress I don't need. Ramita promises to phone the insurance company and get the problems sorted out, and I discover later she's as good as her word: with her intervention, communication between the insurance company and the hospital is finally established, just in time for me to be discharged.

I give her Sally's number, too. This proves to be crucial at the end of my stay when the hospital won't allow me to phone Sally directly; instead, I phone Ramita and ask her to relay the message that I'm ready to be picked up. Again, she's as good as her word.

On the third day, the supervising surgeon visits. He explains the diagnosis and prognosis, says encouraging things and seems generally satisfied with my progress. I can be discharged today or tomorrow, he says; it's up to me. Today, please. He smiles, shakes my hand, and, like most of the doctors, puts a reassuring hand on my shoulder. This small gesture always moves me, and I wonder whether I'd have been so affected by it had I not been in such dire circumstances. I do know that when Ramita walked in and identified herself as being from the New Zealand High Commission, I struggled very hard to retain my composure. Sally was still returning from a visit to the UK, so apart from my friends at the Smyle, I'd seen no one I knew. The sight of Ramita, and Sally later that day, reassured me in ways words simply can't describe.

All I'd had to sustain me was the knowledge I was in good hands, and the thought of my family and friends. Very few knew I was seriously ill, although some of my closest friends had some inchoate intuition something was wrong. Perhaps this can be explained logically -- for example,  by the slightly longer than usual spacings between blog posts -- but I'm not completely convinced. I thought constantly of those great friends and how, if they knew my condition, they would be providing every kind of support and aroha they could, and maybe that constant thought, in extremis, might have a way of making itself known.

Late in the afternoon I change back into my filthy clothes in readiness to be discharged. Sally's on her way to carry my bag and facilitate the administrative details. But the supervisor at the nurse station on my ward won't let me leave; wait in your room, she instructs me. Restless, I end up sitting in the corridor outside my room with several people who've been regular visitors to the other patients. I attempt to strike up a conversation with one man, but his English is almost as bad as my Hindi. He persists, though, and we manage to communicate a little about ourselves. Raj is a farmer from Haryana; his father-in-law, the man in the bed beside mine, has just had bypass surgery. Raj has no children yet, and has been married just six months. Eventually he holds up his phone and asks 'Photo?' We sit together and smile at the camera, and once more I'm moved by the fact that this man whom I've known for little more than a few minutes has felt interested enough to want a record of our fleeting interaction. When I finally leave, I shake his hand and try as best I can to indicate I wish him and his father-in-law all the best.

What will become of the photograph?
What will become of us?

The evening darkens. Outside, three stories up, a kite swoops past, close and beautiful in its command of the dusk. Birds of various types cross the sky: pigeons, crows, parakeets. I watch and can almost feel what it's like to soar through that warm, darkening air, watching the pitiful chaos of human life anchored so inescapably to the ground. Finally, night turns the plate glass window to a black mirror, and I turn away and look down the corridor. My life seems to comprise patient waiting.

Sally arrives and the nurse arranges a security man to escort us to the Billing counter. With her usual astonishing efficiency, Sally's already phoned the hospital's International Relations Manager to sort out the protocols, and she now leads me to the International Payments desk. Here we hit a snag; the man says we have to go back upstairs and wait. Sally knows this is not correct and asks to speak to the IRM. Some checking, and the man says the approval from my insurance company for payment has just arrived a minute ago. I go back upstairs while Sally lights a fire under the bureacracy.

Upstairs, the nurse now insists I must go back downstairs to Billing, so the security guard and the bantam rooster orderly take me down to Billing. The man from International Payments stands there; he looks in horror at me then starts gesticulating wildly at the orderly, asking him why I've been brought down here. I'm taken back upstairs to wait.

Finally, Sally arrives, having managed to convey to the IRM that my treatment during discharge is far from satisfactory. The IRM sets things in motion, even arranging a taxi to replace the one Sally had ordered but which had long gone because of the delays. We go downstairs again and I'm refunded most of my admission fee. While waiting, Sally explains the fiasco to one of the nurses, who has a good sense of humour and laughs with us.

Then we have to go back upstairs to collect the reports. The nurse and security guard accompany us, and at the nurse station the supervisor looks at me as if wondering why I'm back here.
   'You have not paid your bill?' she says.
I drop my head on the counter and start laughing; everyone else laughs, too. The reports haven't been collated, and we lose more time while the supervisor photocopies, files, arranges, and finally hands me my file. She shows me the prescription for my medication and gives a hopelessly inadequate description of how I'm to take my pills. I don't care; I'll get the information from the pharmacist or a reputable online site.

Sally picks up my bag and we go downstairs for the last time, out in the hot Delhi night, and into the air-conditioned taxi. The fiasco has ended.

Sally has arranged a discounted rate at a wonderful guest house in Green Park, and while I settle in there, she collects my medicines from a pharmacy and picks up a takeaway pasta for me -- no spices, as my doctor has instructed. What would I have done without her help? Somehow I'd have muddled through; eventually -- probably the next day -- I'd finally have escaped; I'd have ended up somewhere marginally liveable, relying on food that might or might not repoison me. I almost certainly wouldn't have ended up in Delhi's best hospital, getting the best treatment possible; and I'd have been under the immense stress of trying to negotiate Delhi's transport system while barely able to walk and mostly unable to think. To have someone attending to all those things and more, so all I have to do is sit back and appreciate how lucky I am is, again, beyond words.

Similarly, I think of all the obvious help I've received from other people: Ramita from the NZ High Commission in particular; my brother, who contacted her and activated my insurance policy; the staff at the Smyle, who arranged a taxi to the hospital and made sure I paid only the true fare; the Bardia people who organised my transport to Nepalgunj and flights to Delhi; my aunt, who took such great care of me in the UK when I came down with that other illness that may or may not have been related; others whom, to my shame, I might have overlooked. But the appreciation and gratitude that finally squeezed that small tear from my eye as I lay in the emergency department extends further, including all those who simply showed some compassion for someone having a tough time, like the man at Nepalgunj airport and the orderly who didn't need to grip my shoulder in a gesture of reassurance but did so nevertheless. It includes, too, and in a peculiar way I don't fully understand, particularly those who were unaware of my troubles but would have gone to endless lengths to support me if they had known, simply because they're my greatest friends.

The world is full of violence, suspicion, intolerance, hatred, and innumerable other evils, and we hear about those every day. But the world is also full of kindness, acceptance, joy, concern for others, and the recognition that we all share similar needs, and those things are mostly ignored by the media or trivialised by being turned into sentimental feel-good stories. Nonetheless, these characteristics of human nature comprise the essence of what's good about us; we all have the capacity to feel these things and most of us do. The last weeks have taken a huge toll on me, but the lessons have been priceless. Maybe I did, after all, find what I was not looking for.

1. Here's Part 1.
2. Recovery's going well. I'm still tired, weak, and thin (some would say emaciated, and they'd probably be right), but I'm improving steadily. I leave India in the wee hours of 17 October and touch down in New Zealand shortly before midnight on the 18th. It's been quite a journey.

1. Butterflies at Dachigam National Park, near Srinagar. Sometimes things that look fragile are more resilient than they seem.
2. A very pale, perhaps leucistic, palm squirrel in Delhi's beautiful and fascinating Lodi Gardens.
3. Babbler in the Lodi Gardens. Love these crazy birds.
4. Himalayan bulbul at Manali. Another beautiful bird that evokes strong, good memories.
5. Indian grey hornbill in the Lodi Gardens. Judging from the very small casque (the protuberance on top of the bill), this is probably a young bird.
6. Mosquito at Manali, in healthier times. A medical cannula's one thing; this kind of intrusion into a vein's quite another, particularly where malaria's endemic. My illness in the UK would probably have been a suspected case of malaria, but I had good grounds for believing it wasn't. I was right.
7 & 8. Proof of two things: I'm recovering, and I have plenty of time on my hands. The last photograph's from the second day after being discharged; the penultimate one's from this morning. 

Photos and original text © 2014 Pete McGregor

08 October 2014

Ill on the road: The limits of control (Part 1)

When, lying on my back on a gurney in triage at the Max hospital in Saket, New Delhi, I felt something very unbloke-ish slip from the corner of my right eye and trickle down my cheek, the cause wasn't sorrow or regret or that odious emotion, self-pity, but immense gratitude. Gratitude for two things in particular: my family and friends, whose aroha sustains me; and the kindness, compassion, and assistance of people who at least initially were complete strangers. That thought continued to sustain me, and often choke me up, over the next several days while I underwent exhaustive testing leading to an eventual diagnosis of and treatment for a nasty case of amoebic colitis.

Who knows where I picked up Entamoeba histolytica? I'd been persistently unwell since late August, but the parasite might have been biding its time for much longer; conversely, the other, mostly mild, illnesses might have been unrelated. Travelling in India during the hottest, most humid time of year puts great stress on the body, and a stressed body resists infections less effectively than a more resilient one. I'd had a mild cold during late August and that, too, can't have helped. Later, in the UK, something suddenly flattened me: fit and well one day, I ended up shaking, feverish, and asleep the next. My luck held, though, and my aunt looked after me superbly despite being clearly frustrated by my refusal to abandon my onward travel plans. That illness, however, was almost certainly unrelated and probably viral, and I recovered well and in time to travel onwards to Kazakhstan (briefly) and then to Kathmandu.

That's the dilemma of dealing with illness while travelling: do you tough it out and carry on with the plans, trusting the illness will pass (as most do), or disrupt the travel, stay put, seek treatment, and waste precious time? In my case, I suspect an early diagnosis would probably have been inaccurate because the symptoms were mostly nebulous, and the treatment would have been similarly ineffective.


The acute phase begins after the first day of a trek into the Annapurna Sanctuary. After the earlier illnesses, and considering I've lost a frightening amount of weight, I've been apprehensive about my ability to handle the walking, but the fear proves unfounded. I pace myself well, my legs and lungs handle the sometimes steep ups and downs easily, and I find my spirits lifted by the environment through which we walk. This, I think, will be what I need.

What I don't need, though, is the evening's vile meal: bitter, indeterminate vegetables fried with stodgy, greasy noodles. I wake in the night with a stomach ache, a headache, and feeling unwell, and by morning I realise continuing further towards the Sanctuary is out of the question. If my condition worsens, I'll be in serious trouble, two or more days' walk from the nearest road. I pull the plug. We walk out via the river trail and catch a bus which, for the first hour, creeps along a jeep track at about walking pace. I don't mind; shattered and unwell, I simply sit back in my seat and gaze out the window. Somehow I still manage to find joy in the sight of small, golden-brown dragonflies thronging over brilliant green paddy fields; at the diverse and abundant butterflies flitting and bobbling everywhere; at waterfalls plummeting from the mountainside into wild little streams that surge across the track; and at shacks of all descriptions -- fowl houses, storage sheds, simple shelters, and homes, sometimes with little to distinguish one from the other. The journey back to Pokhara takes about four hours.

Medical treatment in Pokhara is unreliable -- misdiagnoses of pathology samples are reputedly common -- so I take it easy for a few days. At times I find myself literally running with sweat but have no way to tell whether this is the result of fever or simply the heat and humidity -- power, and therefore a cooling fan, is unavailable much of the day in Pokhara because of Nepal's load shedding programme. Well-spaced doses of paracetamol + codeine, interspersed with ibuprofen, keep the headache, and perhaps the fever if that's what it is, under partial control while I try to decide what to do. Eventually I book a seat on a bus to Bardia National Park in the far west of Nepal, thinking I'll stop there for a couple of days then cross back into India and head for Delhi to seek treatment if I'm still unwell.

A well-regarded travel agency sells me a ticket on a bus and says it will take about eight and half hours to get to Ambassa, the transfer point for Bardia.

It takes thirteen hours.

Thirteen hours of hard travelling.
Thirteen hours of having the two different passengers in the seat next to me squeezing up against me, using my shoulder as a rest for their greasy-haired heads.
Thirteen hours of loud, monotonous, mostly similar-sounding Nepalese pop music that relies heavily on excessive use of violins and male-female duets.
Thirteen hours of humidity and sweating.
Thirteen hours of trying to find a position not uncomfortable enough to prevent sleep.
Thirteen hours of trying not to think about the time.
Thirteen hours of resignation and patience when the bus stops yet again.

At a stop in the dead of night, I get off to stretch my legs and stumble towards the rear of the bus. A woman dangles her baby through the window into the cool of the night, and it looks at me, astonished by this thin, pale apparition. I smile and wave. No response. I try again, and from the dark in the back of the bus I hear the mother laughing; she picks up the baby's hand and waves it back. She laughs and says something to her child and we wave at each other, and eventually a wide smile transforms the baby's face.

It transforms my heart, too.

At Ambassa I transfer to a jeep, which bumps slowly along a track and crosses a river bed. An enormous and beautiful owl sits on a rock in the shallows; it turns its head to regard us then lifts into the air and flies into the night. Despite the noise of the diesel engine, the owl's soft, silent flight is almost palpable.

Further along, we see two wild boar by the side of the road, and my excitement mounts -- already we're seeing wild animals. What else might be next?

Nothing. Dogs, a few people, buffalo, cattle. At the lodge, I'm so tired I go straight to my room and sleep for three hours, which in retrospect is nothing like enough to recover enough energy for a guided walk in the afternoon, a walk which turns into a nightmare.

Just an hour into the walk I realise this is a mistake. I must turn back, I tell the guide, but he insists that just a short way further on is the best place in the park to see tigers. Persuaded, I agree to continue, and a few minutes later I'm rewarded -- not with a tiger sighting, but with a close view of three giant hornbills. The guide gasps, and clasps my shoulder.
  'You are a lucky man,' he says, explaining that to see a giant hornbill is far rarer than seeing a tiger -- he hasn't seen a hornbill for six or seven months.
Later, the lodge manager confirms this. I try to feel lucky, but by now I'm having difficulty concentrating on anything other than staying upright and mobile.

The best place in the park for seeing tigers is occupied by people working with elephants. Much shouting and noise; no tigers. We walk downriver to a quieter spot and wait for tigers to come and drink and bathe. They don't. I feel a pinprick on my ankle, reach down and instinctively pick off the agent -- a leech, which hadn't yet fastened itself to my leg. When the elephants leave, we return to the lookout tower, which sways alarmingly. I step backwards and just manage to skip sideways to avoid falling down the unprotected stairwell. Things aren't going well.

We do see an adolescent rhinoceros come to the river to drink, but it's a long way off and dull in the hazy afternoon light. Nothing else noteworthy appears.

How I manage to walk back to the lodge remains a mystery -- sheer force of will, probably; a determination to keep putting one foot in front of the other. The guide slows to explain how the tower we're passing is called the Deer Tower; others are called the Tiger Tower, the Elephant Tower, the Rhinoceros Tower, and so on. I think to myself, 'I don't give a rat's arse what you call them, just keep walking,' but of course I politely say, 'O.K.,' unable to expend the energy to think of something more intelligent.

At the hattisar, the elephant stables, I now know I'll make it, and I allow myself the luxury of stopping and leaning on my bamboo staff to rest. The half blind rhino eats his evening meal at the fence of his enclosure, so close I could reach through and touch the monstrous beast, but because I know he's already killed someone, I don't.

I spend the next day trying to recover, and failing. The tiny amount I manage to eat runs straight through me and I know I'm weakening rapidly. By evening I know I'm in serious trouble, with no Internet access, at least three hours from the nearest airport, and with only enough cash to buy bus tickets but not flights -- and I wouldn't survive the necessary bus journeys.

I talk to the lodge manager and arrange a jeep trip to the closest airport, at Nepalgunj. He has a travel agent friend who will try to arrange a flight to Kathmandu, he says; be ready to leave at 7 a.m. I pack almost everything, manage to survive the night, and shortly after 5 a.m. comes a knock on the door. The lodge manager's ready to go, and within minutes, so am I.

The jeep crawls towards Nepalgunj at 40 km/h, even on the black top, but eventually we arrive at the airport. The travel agent has not only booked a flight to Kathmandu, but an onward flight to Delhi;the catch is that I have to endure a gut-battering ride on the back of his motor bike over a rough road through clouds of dust and filth into the city to find an ATM that will accept one of my cards. The first accepts neither, but fortunately the second allows me to draw out just enough to pay for the flights. Then it's back on the motorbike for another gut pounding and filth drenching.

We get back to the airport as the plane takes off.

The young travel agent works wonders, though, and gets me on the next flight, less than an hour later. At the gate, a young man who looks distinctly Tibetan chats with me. He and his companions have just completed a trek in Lower Dolpo, to Phoksumdo Lake. The route Schaller and Matthiessen took on their journey to Shey! I feel a twinge of envy but know I could never have managed such a journey with this illness so the envy's minor -- instead, the overriding feeling's one of delight at talking to this kind and interesting man who's just been where I'd have loved to go. He asks about me and I explain my situation; he expresses concern and reassures me we'll get to Kathmandu in plenty of time to catch the flight to Delhi. Kindness like this brings a lump to my throat and at times I struggle to retain my composure. Emotions are very close to the surface, but I manage to avoid embarrassing myself; more importantly, I avoid embarrassing him and others nearby who would no doubt feel hugely uncomfortable at the sight of a haggard, filthy foreigner wiping tears from his grimy face in the middle of the airport. 'Get a grip, mate,' I tell myself, 'harden up,' and that blunt, down-to-earth, antipodean stoicism saves me on more than one occasion.

Later, in the hospital, I think hard about all the apparent indignities I've been put through, which have turned out to be nothing like as undignified as I would have expected. On the other hand, bursting into tears in public would have been as undignified as anything I could imagine. I find myself wondering about dignity, and while convalescing, I discuss this via email with  my aunt, and in person with the friend who's provided such wonderful, tangible support here in Delhi -- recommending the hospital, collecting and storing my luggage, arranging transport and this marvellous place to recover, extracting me from the clutches of the hospital's administration system after I'm supposed to have been discharged (more about that later), running errands for me, and much more. Dignity -- the concept seems hard to pin down, perhaps because I'm unsure what questions to ask, but my initial feeling, and one I still think comes close to capturing its essence, is that it's the gracious acceptance of what's necessary. That certainly describes what I feel was my reasonably dignified response to some of the diagnostic procedures I was subjected to -- but how does it explain why I'd have felt such a loss of dignity, such mortification, if I had, after all, broken down in the airport? Necessity and acceptance would have had nothing to do with that situation, if it had happened.

Perhaps dignity depends on understanding one's limits and capabilities. In an early email my aunt suggested it might depend on self-knowledge and 'the ability to be true to yourself in changing, sometimes diminishing circumstances'. Often this manifests as the appearance of reticence, or a distancing of oneself from the situation; sometimes it can cross the line into the kind of aloofness that can appear haughty, which may or may not be deliberate. Usually, I imagine, it's simply that one doesn't know any more appropriate way to react other than to do nothing, and this kind of unresponsiveness can be seen either as dignified or haughty.

But, perhaps a well developed understanding of oneself is not always necessary in order to act with dignity. For a start, how well do any of us really know ourselves? Someone who agonises much less over these things might have only a vague idea of their capabilities and limits yet still have an entirely healthy sense of self-worth that allows them to act in a dignified manner. Put simply, 'I might not know much about myself, but I know I'm just as worthwhile a person as anyone else.'

My friend suggests a distinction: one kind of dignity relies on a justified (and not inflated) appreciation of one's own worth; another relies on knowledge of appropriate behaviour in particular circumstances, especially in cultures that differ substantially from one's own. For all I know, if I'd broken down at the airport, I might immediately have been surrounded by people wanting to comfort me, by people who saw no loss of dignity in what I'd have perceived as mortifying weakness but who instead welcomed the opportunity to support a fellow human being.

At Delhi I'm so weak I can hardly carry my bags, and although my main pack weighs a mere 9 kg I resort to a trolley to wheel it to the Metro. Crossing from New Delhi Metro station to Pahar Ganj requires battling the crowds fighting to get through the security check, and without shame I jump the queue and elbow my way through. I take the quieter, back way to the Smyle, where the recognition and obvious delight on the faces of the staff lifts my spirits after this punishing, twelve-hour journey. They have no room for me, but the manager arranges one -- quiet, dark, clean, with a fan and a/c, and reasonably priced -- at a hotel just around the corner, and gets one of the staff to carry my bag there. Here might not be home, but I'm close to friends, and treatment is no more than a night's sleep away. For the first time in days, I begin to feel safe.

1. Part 2, about my time in the hospital, is on its way, but I can't promise how long you'll have to wait.
2. '...whose aroha sustains me..': The concept of aroha's a little tricky to pin down, but it's better than the word 'love', which is almost useless unless qualified.
3. '...The route Schaller and Matthiessen took ...': Described in Matthiessen's remarkable book, The Snow Leopard.

1. The guest house where the acute stage first manifested.
2. Annapurna South the following morning.
3. Pokhara night life.
4. The yearling rhinoceros at Bardia National Park.
5. This lizard in the garden at the Bardia Jungle Cottage had just gulped down a small ant.
6. The first day after being discharged from hospital. Nothing left in the tank. (Actually happier than I look; just worn out.)

Photos and original text © 2014 Pete McGregor

18 September 2014

Notes from an English train

At Paddington I buy a one-way rail ticket for Great Malvern for a sum that would have allowed me to stay in in an air-conditioned room in Pahar Ganj for more than three days, and board after a not-excessive wait. At a stop further along the line a young guy takes a seat next to me. His lower right leg glows with a luminous-red cast and he manoeuvres his crutches awkardly as he sits. I ask if he's done his achilles in. He shakes his head and looks slightly sheepish.
 'Wrecked my ankle at a party,' he says, admitting the injury's self-inflicted. 'Guess I'll be a bit more careful how much I drink in future.'
Inevitably, he asks if I've been travelling and the conversation turns to India.
  'I'd love to go there,' he says, and sounds as if he means it.
I encourage him, suggesting he try to make it a long trip -- months rather than weeks. We chat all the way to the next stop, where he leaves the train. We wish each other good luck, and I'm sorry to see him go.

England -- so many names that could only be found here without sounding out of place. At Kingham station, for example, a sign says 'Change here for buses to Chipping Norton', and at Moreton-in-Marsh another sign lists Chipping Campden, Stow-on-the-Wold, Bourton-on-the-Water, and, incongruously, Broadway.

The English countryside slides past, almost stereotypical in its elegance -- rolling hills with copses, hedgerows, neat fields -- and I wonder why I don't feel more elated at seeing these things I'm so familiar with from my boyhood, when many of the books I read and TV programmes I watched about wildlife and nature were focused on Britain; when most of the spectacular books and programmes about New Zealand wildlife and nature, or even the more interesting and difficult-to-film subjects from other parts of the world, had yet to be produced. Even while still a boy I could identify most of the British animals and birds, and their charm and that of the landscape they inhabit still delights me.

But, as I look out this window, something seems to be missing. The feeling's inchoate, intangible; I can't put my finger on it. I think perhaps the landscape's too neat, too ordered, but when I pay attention to that I see I'm wrong -- some of what I'm seeing does seem wilder and less kempt than I'd expected. I like this; I like the knowledge that even in what must be one of the world's tidier landscapes, pockets of wildness thrive.

Perhaps I've simply become too used to the energy of India. The urge to compare, which so often interferes with appreciation of where you are, proves irresistible. Where are all the people?

A roe deer (or is a muntjac?) feeds in a field; further on I see another. A group of rabbits occupies a corner of a rough paddock. They look greyer and leaner than the rabbits of New Zealand. Those books about British wildlife weren't just abstract knowledge for me; many of the most common birds of the New Zealand countryside are descendants of those brought there by homesick British migrants. Around my own house in the Pohangina valley the most common birds include yellowhammers, chaffinches, house sparrows of course, blackbirds, and song thrushes, and from time to time I see many more, like goldfinches, redpolls, and greenfinches. Perhaps the familiarity of much of what I'm seeing from this smooth, fast train makes me feel as if my journey has already begun to end?

But the magpies and crows remind me of India, and even though they're not quite the same, they still look like old friends. What suddenly shocks me, though, is seeing a small herd of cattle and realising these are BEEF cattle. Am I really that accustomed to India? Maybe I now know some parts of India better than I know the England of my boyhood perceptions? I've certainly spent far longer there than here.

A hare sits, grey and upright and alone among crows in a stubble field. Hares have been part of my life forever; I can even remember as a very small boy asking my uncle how to tell a hare from a rabbit. Not many memories pre-date that one. The sight of a hare always thrills me; it does so now, too.

Finally, Great Malvern. My aunt sits, waiting at the station. Neither of us can believe I'm here.

Ten days at Great Malvern. I can't write about those days, other than to say two months of sometimes hard travelling caught up with me and I couldn't have been in a better place, nor better looked after. The timing was uncanny.

Shortly after five in the morning we sit on the hard bench at the end of the platform and don't talk about goodbyes. The inadequacy of partings: how do you say what can't be said? The train finally pulls into the station and I begin to leave England.

At Worcester Shrub Hill a young guy boards my carraige. He wears a suit, the jacket open, and the anxious look of someone going to a job interview. The inspector takes his job seriously: another young guy, casually dressed, gets a ticking-off for not having bought a ticket before boarding, and another passenger gets questioned about whether that's his bag in the overhead rack on the opposite side of the aisle.

When the dawn lightens enough so the tinted windows no longer reflect my disconcertingly tired and drawn face, I begin to scribble notes more frequently. Someone once said writing's easy, you just jot down ideas as they occur to you; he then added that it's the occurring that's the hard part. Maybe so, but movement and the sense of journeying help, and trains are one of the best forms of travel for facilitating that occurring of ideas. Besides, not all writing has to be about ideas; simple description has many virtues, and this morning I have plenty to scribble about in the little cahier.

The silhouette of a long-tailed bird sitting on a power line -- instantly I think 'drongo' even though I know it's ridiculous (it's a magpie). Perhaps even now, part of me still hasn't left India. I think it never will.

A fox sits on its haunches and watches the train pass; later, another trots through earthworks on the embankment with such an air of self-assurance that I admire (and probably envy) it just for that (as well, of course, for the sheer beauty of the animal and the elegance of its lope). Had it known of my admiration, the fox would have laughed, of course.

Deer in misty paddocks; lone trees in precisely the right place in empty fields -- the geometry of a thoughtful history of cultivation. The bone-white and grey moon, upside down and just beginning to wane; high, tiny vapour trails following the bright speck of planes I long to be on. I think of the two senses of 'flight' -- one literal, as in the flight of birds; the other figurative, as in flight from something or somewhere -- and wonder which best applies to me.

Wood pigeons -- surely they must be more intelligent than they look?

As the train fills, everyone I see seems to enter their own world -- newspapers; laptops and tablets; phones; kindles; i-pods, earbuds and headphones. Some, plugged in, have their eyes closed. No one writes anything by hand. A disconcertingly large number of people wear suits, and anything not a suit looks freshly purchased for a large sum. I probably look like a hobo. Perhaps this is partly why I feel more crowded here than crammed among the millions in Delhi, although even there on the Metro many people manage to stay tidier than me. Whatever the reason, I think perhaps I am the odd one out -- no, I AM the odd one out. Yet, in Delhi I stand out almost everywhere except among the tourist spots, to which I seldom go. I don't understand why I feel this way; I just feel I don't belong here, despite its attractions, and I wonder whether I'd ever grow accustomed to this environment. When I've thought of how I might achieve that state of feeling at home wherever I am, I've never thought it might be this hard here in the land from which my ancestors left (although admittedly this is neither Scotland nor Ireland).

The sound of one keyboard tapping. No koan here, but perhaps enlightenment might arise from contemplating the sound. What is he writing? A report? A presentation to a corporate meeting? The horror! The horror! I have left that world and cannot return, even if I wished to, which I do not. Whatever lies in store for me will be elsewhere.

Again, though, I question my perceptions -- always a useful thing to do. Not everyone has disappeared into their own world; I can hear the murmur of a quiet conversation further back in the carriage, and a few people, like  the anxious young guy, seem slightly uncomfortable, as if they too find being here uncomfortable and haven't fully accepted they want to be part of this world. Others seem more resigned than accepting -- 'hanging on in quiet desperation'. What can they do, though?

At Paddington a helpful ticket-checker gives me clear, precise instructions about where to catch the Underground to Liverpool Street, and thanks to his help I'm on way in just a couple of minutes, standing with the strap-hangers, most of whom look tired or dour or both. Liverpool Street arrives; I make my way to the train and find I'm in time to catch an earlier one. Another journey; more gazing out the window, watching England slip away. On a bank of a slow river, a man sits with his fishing road set up and his basket and a little table beside him, and I'm struck by the apparent wonderful pointlessness of his inactivity. Fishing's been described as many things -- 'the art of prolonged anticipation'; 'a jerk on one end of a line, waiting for a jerk on the other', and so on -- but one way of thinking about certain types of fishing is that they share much in common with meditation. This man certainly appears meditative, but even if his thoughts have wandered all over the place, I have no doubt he'll return home refreshed, even if fishless.

The train arrives at the dreadful, giant warehouse that's Stansted airport, where my last impressions of England are about as far removed from the gentle, beautiful countryside around Great Malvern as Delhi is. In the previous post I pointed out how people and places are inextricable, but I know now that if I return to England, the only draw will be a few close friends. Perhaps in the attempt to feel at home wherever I am, I have learned only that I have not yet succeeded, and the affinity I once felt for this place has begun to fade. Aspects like my friends, the birds and other animals, and the distinctive beauty of the English countryside still delight me, but maybe the result of my striving has been to drift further away from a home I once thought I might have had.

1. '...the more interesting and difficult-to-film subjects from other parts of the world...' Not including seals. I never want to see another documentary about the breeding habits of any kind of seal. Ever.
2. 'The bone-white and grey moon, upside down...' Look closely if you visit the hemisphere opposite the one in which you usually live.
3. 'The horror! The horror!' Kurtz's last words in Heart of Darkness.
4. '...hanging on in quiet desperation..' ...is the English way, according to Pink Floyd.
5. '...a jerk on one end...' The main title of the late Robert Hughes' wonderful book. Recommended reading.

1. Quintessential English garden at Great Malvern. Home to many birds and other animals, including badgers.
2. Dragonfly in the same garden. At Slimbridge the day after I arrived, I watched a hobby hunting dragonflies.
3. Wood pigeon at Slimbridge.
4. English robin at Great Malvern. Not a great photograph, but they weren't cooperative. Still, I trust this captures something of the character of these little birds.

Photos and original text © 2014 Pete McGregor

01 September 2014

He who has never left -- Leh

'So I find words I never thought to speak
In streets I never thought I should revisit
When I left my body on a distant shore.'
-- T.S. Eliot; Four Quartets: Little Gidding

A friend in New Zealand  and another in the US say they're looking forward to reading a post about Leh. Maybe others are, too -- but what do I say? How do I convey what it means to me? When something's important to us, we want to do justice to it and we try harder to find the right words, but too often that striving defeats itself; the words falter, the flow dries up, we fall back on silence and the shrug of resignation -- we don't know how to express the significance, we say, and open our hands in the gesture of helplessness.

There -- my excuses have been made. All I can do is try, knowing (to quote Eliot again) that ' every attempt /
Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure'. I have to try, too. If you'd prefer I remained silent, don't read on.

At the start of a new month I sit in the little icecream shop in Leh with a small bowl of apricot icecream decorated with shards of waffle cone. Minimalist decor: clean, bright, pine tables, each with a coloured tin tea pot and a Tintin book; simple heavy stools with blue denim seats; the small range of icecream neatly displayed behind glass. All the ingredients have been carefully chosen from local produce, and the obvious attention to cleanliness and presentation encourages me (my trust proves warranted, too). A friend introduced me to this place yesterday after we'd had tea at the nearby restaurant; I'd had Kashmiri tea with ground almond and saffron and today did exactly the same -- Kashmiri tea followed by apricot icecream. I'm so imaginative. I'm also able to recognise a good thing.

The Old Town, in contrast, represents almost everything this new, modern, icecream shop doesn't. Those small, low doors with their patina of great age and countless stories; the massive trunks of trees around which the town seem to have been built, the bark worn down and polished by the brush of generation after generation of hands; the stone walls that, in some cases against all apparent reason, have survived without collapsing; the way some buildings cross low over these narrow alleys to form tunnels where I have not just to stoop but to bend well over -- those tunnels with their quirky hand-written signs telling people not to urine in here O.K.

More, much more. For example, the ancient tandoor bakeries with their magnificent, mouth-watering smells, where, for 30 generations or more, customers have queued in the early mornings. The tranquility and cool relief of the Old Town despite its proximity to the chaos and heat of the new city -- turn a corner and you step from the 21st century into a world where evidence of anything later than the mediaeval requires careful looking. Or, that strange, fetish-like object hanging from the outside wall of a dusty, whitewashed house -- an assemblage of twigs and cord so old it looks one gust away from crumbling to dust. What makes it so eerie and slightly unnerving is the old, weathered skull lashed to the centre of the fetish -- the grey skull of a dog, I think, judging from the pronounced saggital crest and zygomatic arch. At Rumbak I saw a similar object and asked Stanzin what it represented; he hesitated, then said he thought it might be intended to provide protection against evil. The beliefs that hung these objects on these walls might have preceded any formal religion, and I wonder whether they might have given rise to the chillies-and-lemon charms hanging from many doorways elsewhere in India, but this is pure speculation on my part. Whatever the belief that put this one here in the Old Town, two things seem irrefutable: the need to believe in something beyond the evidence of the senses proves irresistible for most humans, and even for those with no such belief, the sight of a fetish like this can be unsettling. Mystery appeals to most of us.

I walk through the Old Town, losing my way, finding it again, avoiding the meaner-looking dogs, looking down fondly at the-dog-who's-eaten-too-many-biscuits. He slowly opens an eye and looks at me in hope. Disappointed, he closes his eye and resumes his sleep.

Even the new town has a charm that rises above the more difficult characteristics it shares with so many other Indian towns. When I walk along the Main Bazaar I must make a conscious effort not to stop and inspect the countless shawls and scarves in so many colours, patterns, materials, and quality; if I do, I'll never get where I think I want to go. It's not just shawls, either -- here you can find a huge range of jewelry, heavily dominated by turquoise (which I happen to like); shops selling traditional clothing including the distinctive headgear that looks a little like a top hat with up-turned ear flaps, and others selling Goretex and down clothing and all manner of modern hiking and climbing gear for the trekkers and Stok Kangri hopefuls (this obvious awareness of the importance of the mountains as a source of recreation -- and admittedly, money -- strikes a chord with me, despite my reservations about the view that sees mountains as little more than a way of satisfying human needs and desires). Even the souvenir and trinket sellers add colour and life. Sure, during the middle of the day the place is chaotic, but it's chaotic in a more humane way than places like Main Bazaar in Pahar Ganj, Delhi, which so often seems not just frantic but desperate.

I step carefully along the footpath then onto the road, which is undergoing major renovation, to avoid the simplest of all kinds of markets: a line of women in traditional dress sitting on the footpath with vegetables and fruit spread out on blankets in front of them. Someone with a cynical disposition might suggest this is more to capture the tourists than for anyone wanting to buy vegetables -- the cameras click constantly -- but this appears to be not the case because the photographers neither buy the produce nor offer any compensation (most, it seems, don't even ask if they can photograph).

An old man, so leathery and wrinkled he looks as if he's spent all his life shrivelling under the fierce Ladakh sun (and probably has) sits at the end of the row, at the intersection. He seems to be permanently smiling. On his blanket, spread out like the produce of the women, lies a collection of crystals. I have no language with which to ask his story and must pass by each day, still wondering.

Further down the road I step into a shop with an interesting range of books in the window. The range inside is even more diverse -- reprints of the books of Jim Corbett on paper seemingly produced before he even wrote them; a range of New Age and pop psychology books that wouldn't be out of place in an Auckland bookshop; an even more extensive range of high quality coffee table books of excellent photographs from Ladakh; maps; postcards; school textbooks and stationery; and, of most interest to me right now, natural history field guides for Ladakh, including Grimmett et al.'s Birds of the Indian Subcontinent. I'd never intended buying the book because of its weight and bulk but, frustrated by the shortcomings of the app (and annoyed by its outrageous price), I'm sorely tempted. Eventually the advantages of the book win the day. A good bookshop can redeem most towns, but already I know Leh doesn't need redeeming. The longer I spend here, the stronger its hold on me.

In the evening of my first day in Leh, a new friend shows me some of the places she knows so well, eventually guiding me through the Old Town and up past the palace, along the steep, gritty track. At the monastery she asks if I'd like to go inside. I hesitate, then decline. No, I say, I'm uneasy about gawping at places important to other people's beliefs when I can't share those beliefs. She nods; she feels the same, she says. Instead we stand at the edge by the low wall, looking out into the evening, over Leh, across to Spituk, to the Ladakh Range, the 6000+ metre pyramid of Stok Kangri, and Hemis National Park. Somewhere deep in those mountains snow leopards prowl, hunt, live their lives. My chances of seeing one, particularly at this time of year, are almost nil. 'Almost', though -- not impossible, and in the process of looking, who knows what other wonders I might see? Also, in my travels I've been unreasonably lucky with wildlife sightings; now, perhaps, I need the lesson of not seeing the snow leopard, if for no other reason than the reminder that wishing too hard for something guarantees disappointment. This is not a rational argument, but it is a true one.

For now, it's enough to stand here high above Leh as the sun goes down behind that last, long ridge. I want to be nowhere else.

She points out the Sunni mosque from which that heart-breakingly beautiful azan rings out each evening -- the call to prayer that haunts me and comes close to bringing me to tears I don't understand -- and the Shia mosque not too far distant; there, she says, right behind the main bazaar, is the Buddhist centre; and down there near the edge of the Old Town is the tree considered sacred by Sikhs. The Christian presence is strong here too. In a world in which intolerance, particularly by religious factions, seems so prevalent, Leh seems like hope.

In the early morning before the sun begins to burn, while the shade under the trees and against the high stone walls still provides shelter, I stride out down the path to Changspa Road. An old woman makes her way slowly up the path and I greet her.
'Julley,' I say.
'Ju-LEY!' she replies, smiling, enthusiastic, stressing the last syllable so it sounds more heartfelt.
This, I think, is one of the reasons I find it so easy to like Leh. This kind of response has been typical, unlike many other areas of India where the frown and stare seems so common (although usually easily disarmed with a nod and a smile); to be greeted warmly even by many of the women here in Leh is almost startling -- elsewhere in the parts of India I've visited I found this highly unusual; there, the usual reaction is the careful avoidance of eye contact.

I scribble a note in the little cahier: 'More often than not,' I write, 'it's people who hold me in a place rather than the place itself.' Now I'm less certain, not because I doubt the power of great friendships but because people and places are inextricable; each colours the other, and eventually we have only the memories, where people and place cannot be separated. I can't think of Huaraz and the Cordillera Blanca, for example, without thinking of the people with whom I shared my too-short time there, and I can't think of those friends without thinking of Huaraz -- seeing the huge full moon rise behind some of the most spectacular mountains I've ever seen while Marin and Charlotte and I waited for our meals to arrive and I skimmed Nicholas Shakespeare's biography of Bruce Chatwin -- and that brings back memories of the charming middle-aged Italian woman who, in broken English on the coast of Ghana, likened me to Chatwin purely on the basis that I was always writing (having now read Shakespeare's biography in full, I'm not sure I'm entirely flattered, but I appreciated her intention). All these connections among people and places. This is what enriches a life, and here in Leh the connections, even those seemingly insignificant or momentary, like this old woman's greeting or sharing the laughter of the two women in the icecream shop, keep coming.

The snow mountains to the north-east of Stok Kangri gleam in the evening sun. Men and women come and go, but the mountains remain. The most we can hope for is that maybe, just maybe, the mountains will remember us when we've long turned to the dust that will bury our ruins.

Something looks out of place on the folded macpac merino top sitting neatly on top of the corner cupboard. There, on the fine black material, clings a tiny, pale, patterned gecko about the length of my little finger. I encourage it onto my hand. It feels soft but definite. I nudge it onto the wall but it immediately drops off and hides beneath the merino top. Clearly, this small sophisticated lizard has fine taste in habitats. I'm happy to leave it there and like the idea of its company.

Early one morning I pack the camera, binoculars, and a small bottle of water and step out onto the cool, dusty road. Sleepy dogs and two policemen at the lake eye me as I stride by: past the water carriers filling their oil drums before sealing them closed with tightly stretched plastic and wheeling them off to the poorer parts of town on their rickety, ragged-tyred, three-wheeled carts; past three small and dusty donkeys feeding from a rubbish pile; around the corner and into the Old Town. At the palace I begin the steady climb up the still-cool track and past the small cairns of rocks and stones that remind me of secular chortens -- the kind that seem to spring up wherever someone adds a second cairn, and so a tradition begins -- until, almost at the point where the track forks, I look up and see a chukar.

A second bird appears. Carefully I retrieve the binoculars and admire the pair -- their beige, rock-and-dust-coloured bodies and black markings with vivid red bills and legs, their typical game bird shape. They make their way along the ridge in clear view, drop out of sight on the far side, reappear, and pose against the backdrop of the mountains and blue morning sky with prayer flags fluttering overhead. When they again drop out of sight I follow with the telephoto lens mounted, but they've gone now and I catch no further sight of them, as if they've become the rocks they resemble so closely, as if saying this is enough, a photograph another time perhaps.

As I sit at the knoll, still thinking of the delight of seeing the chukar and of being here before anyone else, a small falcon comes speeding across the mountainside. When close, it spreads its tail and begins to circle, gaining height, moving closer, until finally it flies right overhead. A kestrel. Through the binoculars I can see the patterns, the colours, the details, and the intensity of this small, beautiful predator. The sun shines through its wings and tail and they glow as if illuminated by the energy of the bird itself.

Through cool shade and burning sunlight I make my way back down the track towards the Old Town, from where the smell of bread baking in tandoor ovens hundreds of years old drifts up the mountainside. The dust of Ladakh lies on my shoes, the memory of birds lingers in my heart.

The minibus that will take me away from this place will leave at one in the morning; I must report at half past midnight. Jameel and Saira insist I eat with them on this last evening, and they stay up until midnight until I have to step out the door for the last time. They hug me, and Saira gives me a long, lithe poplar stick to fend off the night dogs. Leaving this place, leaving Leh, is like leaving home, but harder -- the thought of home always contains the idea that maybe, one day at last, we will return. Now, though, I step out feeling close to undone by my time here and still not fully understanding why. I cannot leave Leh but do not know how to come back.

All these emotions. I walk on into the night with the promise of more journeying ahead. My life has been enriched immensely during these two, too-short weeks, but the present has now become the past. Somehow I must learn to let go, and to do so without diminishing the gift.

I walk on, stepping through the moon shadows, watching for dogs, listening to the knock of my poplar pole on the stony path, and wondering whether I will always be beset by the restlessness that hopes that at last it might find what it did not know it was looking for.

1. '… the books of Jim Corbett …': Corbett, in whose honour Corbett National Park is named, was famous first for shooting numerous man-eating tigers and leopards in the region now known as Uttarakhand; later he was a vocal proponent for conservation in India. His first major book, Man-eaters of Kumaon, was published in 1944. 
2. 'Men and women come and go …': a reference to a whakatauki (loosely, a Maori saying), one version of which is ' Whatungarongaro te tangata toitÅ« te whenua: People perish; the land remains'.
3. 'The thought of home …': 'He who returns,' Neruda said, 'has never left.' 

1. Getting closer to Leh on the second day of travel from Manali.
2. This tandoor bakery is reputedly 600-700 years old.
3. Dog-skull fetish, Leh Old Town.
4. Leh gompa.
5. Old town door, Leh.
6. Last light behind Leh, from the prayer flag knoll.
7. Chukar calling at Rumbak.
8. Early morning, Leh. A water carrier wheels his empty load back up the hill. On the the way down, that load will weigh the better part of a couple of hundred kilos, over 160 of those in the 44-gallon drum alone. I asked one of the men how often he did this each day. 15 times, he said.

Photos and original text © 2014 Pete McGregor

18 August 2014

Coming down -- return to Delhi

While waiting for the last lunch in Manali -- possibly forever -- I scribble a few notes and think about the journey. Right now I feel as if I'm just killing time, waiting for it to pass until I board the bus to Delhi; as if my time in Manali has already ended and I just want to get on the bus and start travelling again. This journey has a strange feel to it -- less coherent, less unified, perhaps, than the other big journeys. Already I have the impression I'll remember it much more as a series of episodes: Delhi and Amritsar (Amritsar seems so long ago now); Dharamsala and Manali; Leh/Ladakh; and then of course the times to come, most of which seem impossibly far in the future but in an instant will be here then receding into the past. This is the incomprehensibility of time; I simply can't get my head around the way the future becomes the past. It's both a comfort -- no matter how how difficult the present, it will eventually become the past (time heals all wounds) -- and, sometimes, a source of grief (time wounds all heels).

I'm not even sure this reflects the different nature of this journey, though. When I think of the other big journeys I think of them as episodes, too; for example, my time in Mongolia and my time in Italy, as well as other places, took place on the same trip but they were so different the link seems tenuous. Perhaps what's different about this journey, what's so strange, is the way I seem so much more immersed in it; how, when I do think about being back in the Pohangina Valley, I have no trace of the slight wistfulness that usually accompanied those memories on all the previous journeys (which is not to say I won't greatly enjoy being back there). More than on any other trip, I seem to be comfortable wherever I am, which is remarkable given the physical conditions -- this almost unrelenting heat and humidity -- which are more difficult than anywhere I remember except perhaps Ghana, which they resemble. Perhaps this is a good sign. Perhaps, after all this travelling over all these years I'm only now beginning to learn how to travel truly.

The aimlessness of this scribbling probably speaks for itself, and probably arises from too much sitting. Was it Nietzsche who claimed that the only worthwhile thoughts come from walking? If so, it's typical Nietzschean hyperbole but also typical of his insights, containing a germ of truth: being in motion really does seem to stimulate thought processes. Walking does this best, but other forms of movement can achieve similar results. This is one of the main reasons I love most journeys by bus.

 I remember too, how one of Chris Bonnington's books about his attempts on the south-west face of Everest included an extract from an expedition member's diary; in that, the diarist admonished himself for wasting time in unstructured thought. When I read that, decades ago, I felt guilty because I recognised how much time I spent in 'unstructured' thought. Now, much older and more critical, I think the claim that unstructured thought is a waste of time is utter bullshit. Certainly, structured thought has a place -- for example, when you're trying to resolve a logical problem -- but most insights, I suspect, come from thoughts allowed to wander, to make connections where they will, to go off on tangents or explore their own paths.

The bus leaves two hours late. Waiting for passengers from Leh, the driver said. Plausible, and frustrating, but delays, often protracted, are part of life in India and the trick to dealing with them is, I think, to know when something might be done to hasten the process and when the only option is acceptance, resignation, and a philosophical attitude. The problem, however, is that knowing whether something might be done requires a good understanding of how things get done here, and for visitors like me that's seldom possible. Consequently, I might sometimes be too philosophical, too resigned. That's hardly a great cost, though.

Already late, the bus then stops several times to load vegetables. This involves groups of men standing around apparently doing nothing except talking and occasionally putting another large, shattered-cardboard box held together by flimsy twine into the cargo hold. Five minutes' work turns to half an hour; what should have been several hours of gazing out the window watching the evening landscape pass by turns into several hours of watching the landscape NOT pass by, until finally night shuts down even that option. Once the possibility of enjoying the scenery has passed, the long stops cease.

Surprisingly, I manage a fair amount of sleep -- fitful, but it helps the night pass. We stop at a truckers' dhaba where the extremely efficient staff deliver my paratha promptly and I finish it with time to spare. Back on the bus we continue to drive through the night and I continue to sleep, off and on, seeing almost nothing of the places we pass through save for house lights high on mountainsides; small, illuminated villages; a large market selling mostly fruit and vegetables; and occasional bridges, including one over an expanse of water that in the moonlight looked impossibly large to be situated in the mountains.

Dawn comes; the sky lightens; the sun glows just above the horizon, red and perfectly round through thick haze. As it rises, it turns from red to orange to an intense yellow disc bearing the threat of tremendous heat. We stop again soon after, around 7 a.m., at another travellers' complex where the conductor tells me we have 15 minutes. I order an excellent aloo paratha and chai, bolt the breakfast down within the 15 minutes and wait around for the remaining 15 minutes until we begin the final leg to Delhi.

The delays, however, mean instead of arriving between 5 and 7 in the morning, we reach our destination closer to 9.30 a.m. Roger, the Australian from near Alice Springs, and I share a ride to Paharganj after some hard bargaining that lets us halve the initial Rs400 fare. This all takes time, though, and when we eventually arrive, all chance of visiting the Kazakhstan embassy today has vanished.

Every restaurant I visit in Paharganj feels like a sauna, even the rooftop restaurants that in theory should catch the breeze. This wouldn't be so bad if clothes were optional, but unfortunately they're not (although some foreign visitors with less concern for local sensitivities seem to be testing that requirement to its limit). Besides, if I stripped down I'd be taken for a reincarnation of Gandhi and I could do without that attention.

The bottle of ice cold water I bought half an hour ago has already reached blood temperature, and I can't help thinking of those evenings on the top floor of the Tiger Eye in Manali with a cold Kingfisher, a plate of steamed veg momos, and a view of misty, forested mountainsides. On my last day there I'd had breakfast as usual at the Bee's Knees and had been greeted like a long-absent friend, which in a sense I suppose I was. I lingered there, wondering why so few people seemed to visit and deciding that perhaps it was because here you couldn't be seen from the street; here you couldn't display your coolness as effectively; here, too, you couldn't evaluate the passersby and keep an eye out for friends who might be walking along the road looking for similarly trendy and conspicuous places to eat.

Eventually I abandoned my cynicism and simply enjoyed being where I was. Jungle crows held an animated conversation in the trees and some other bird, probably a Himalayan bulbul, warbled melodiously nearby. A dog barked; a vehicle screeched its horn as it made its way down the narrow road; the thump of the kind of music Rico detested sounded like a heartbeat lower down in the town, and perhaps that's what it was -- the sound of the kind of life that attracts a certain kind of traveller to Old Manali. Marco, the Italian photographer in the minibus that had survived only half the journey from Leh to Manali (another story), didn't fit that stereotype -- not in the least -- and he chose to stay in New Manali. Coincidence or not? I know what Rico would have said.

As for me -- just as far as Marco from this stereotype of the typical Old Manali traveller -- I prefer the sound of the birds.

1. I've skipped much of what I sketched out in my handwritten notes in Leh, not because it's unimportant but for precisely the opposite reason. Leh affected me deeply, and when something's that important you want to do it justice. I don't know whether I can; I don't know how I might. I think it needs time, but the previous post is as good an attempt as I can manage for the time being, even if focused more on events outside Leh itself. (Conversely, the photographs are all from in and around Leh, but that's mostly because the bug-riddled app, Photomate R2, won't let me access anything from Manali or earlier.)

1. The Taglang La, 5328 m, on the road from Manali to Leh. When I returned, this was lit by the light of the almost-supermoon.
2. Mani wall at Rumbak
3. Dog on the  steps leading to the palace, Leh.
4. The poorer part of Leh at sunset, from the Monastery knoll.

Photos and original text © 2014 Pete McGregor

08 August 2014

In the land of the snow leopard

At the homestay in Rumbak, almost two hours' walk from the end of the road, I sit writing, cross-legged on a hard cushion at a low table, having returned not long ago from a walk along a high track above the river where I sat watching a herd of over 30 bharal make their way down the steep, dusty mountainside to the river. No sooner had they reached it than they returned up the mountainside, as if they'd just wanted to check the river was still there.

We'd driven to Zingchan, avoiding the 10 km stretch of road from Spituk described aptly by one of the guide books as a 'masochistic slog'. I understood the description: for much of the way the road was a sealed, winding strip through a searing desert, utterly devoid of shade -- the sort of environment in which fresh apricots shrivel and desiccate in minutes. The same would happen to exposed human skin. Further towards Zingchan the valley narrowed. Steep, rocky mountainsides showed upended, folded, twisted strata; little grew except harsh low shrubs, well spaced. Only a few willows at the very bottom of the valley along the river looked anything like lush.

We reached Zingchan, which appeared to be nothing more than the end of the road and a collection of tiny, heavily laden ponies. When the van drove off, Stanzin and I had already walked some distance down the track; five minutes later, Stanzin pointed out a chukar running along the track ahead of us, picking seeds from pony dung. We walked on in the blistering heat, past the enormous generator powering the drill with which workmen prepared to dynamite the mountainside, extending the road further into the valley, making the home of the snow leopard more accessible. Ten minutes short of an hour's walking we stopped; Stanzin scooped water from the stream; I swallowed a few mouthfuls of oral reydration salt (ORS) solution which tasted like a bottled pharmacy but proved surprisingly palatable. Perhaps my body knew better than my taste buds.

Suddenly Stanzin stood and exclaimed, pointing across the stream. There, only about a hundred metres away, coming down the mountainside and apparently contemptuous of our presence, was a band of bharal. After a quick look through the binoculars, I handed them to Stanzin. The ponies we'd passed earlier had begun to catch up, though, so we moved on. Despite the heat and the altitude, I felt good, and we reached Rumbak in well under two hours, after several stops for photographs and to inspect more bharal, a red-billed chough, and more chukar.

The woman at the homestay has enough rudimentary English for a conversation.
'Married?' she asks. 'Children?'
She tells me she has three children; the eldest, seven years old, goes to school in Leh and comes home for holidays. Here she looks after her two-and-a-half-year-old girl and one-year-old boy. She seems gentle and thoughtful. I ask whether she ever sees Shan, the snow leopard.
'Never,' she says, but she means now, in summer. 'Only winter.'
I wonder where they go -- deeper into the mountains, higher, where it's colder? Or are they still here, hidden deep in caves during the heat of the day, only coming out in the relative cool of night? I want to believe one might still be here, perhaps even having watched us walk up the valley, but I know this is wishful thinking. Wherever they are now, they're not here, and as the new road extends further up the valley, will they finally stop returning in the cold months?

This, however, is called progress, and the seven-year-old boy will be able to return more easily and more often to his family, and life will become easier for the residents here, who will be able to enjoy more of the privileges I've enjoyed all my life. But how long will it take before they recognise the cost, and will they ever question it? Would I, if I were in their position?

Later the woman brings me a small, handmade, felted toy, instantly recognisable with its cream body, black spots, and long, black-tipped tail. Two nights, she says, to make this Shan.

Perhaps, after all, I have seen the snow leopard.

The four o'clock light on these sere mountains surrounding the Rumbak Valley looks as old as Time. Cloud shadows, sunlight, white clouds, the rock red or pale dun or even almost white. The willows along the river bend and sway in the wind; the wind which sets the prayer flags fluttering, sending prayers to heaven. I don't even know what mine should be.

At five in the morning I get up, pack the camera, binoculars, bird guide, and a partly full bottle of ORS, which has resumed its disgusting taste. Stanzin offers to accompany me but I can see he's desperate for sleep and, besides, I prefer to walk on my own, at my own pace, unpressured by any goal other than to stroll around, looking. Above the camp and information signs at the junction, I stop and sit. Below, on a a patch of close-grazed grass, the crazy Swiss or Austrian man who'd arrived lost at Rumbak yesterday evening lies in his sleeping bag on a groundsheet, surrounded by his mountain of gear. He'd been carrying an enormous, protruding pack on his back, a similarly large grubby yellow sack dangling from one shoulder, and a smaller pack in front. He'd looked like a malformed Bactrian camel.

Not much seems active: a black redstart, a Eurasian magpie, a mixed flock of hill and rock pigeons, chukar in several places. No sign of bharal or any other mammals. I continue down the valley to the chorten with the bharal skulls at the entrance to the gorge and linger, trying for a photograph that might be more than a record shot. All the energy seems to have drained from my body.

I return, very slowly, to the room at our homestay where Stanzin still lies asleep. Last night on the way back from our evening excursion he'd remarked how he'd had only 2-3 hours' sleep the previous night. The poor guy must have been exhausted, but to his credit he'd hidden it well -- at least until this morning.

The woman at the homestay dresses her one-year-old boy and stands him in front of her, encouraging him to take a step. This, though, is one too far. I ask if he can walk.
'No,' she says, smiling and shaking her head.
His balance suggests that step won't be far off.

Sunlight creeps down the mountainside, followed by cloud shadow -- the typical pattern of light on these arid mountains. Maybe the lack of vegetation makes the pattern so much more obvious, so much more dramatic? The heat, though, hasn't yet arrived, and I'm pleasantly cool even with the Mont Bell parka on. My hands never felt particularly cold this morning but that might be because they're so dry, with less feeling than usual: I had to work to get them functional enough to be able to write.

The three Indians here with us, husband and wife Dev and Nehar, and Muddin, join me for breakfast of something resembling puri and something halfway between an omelette and scrambled egg. The puri leaves my fingers greasy; my omelette has a slight off flavour as if one of the eggs was a little older than desirable. The woman brings seabuckthorn jam, though, and this, with its sweet-sharp flavour, suits the oily puri very well. Last night I chatted with Dev and Nehar, both of whom speak excellent English. They're keenly interested in wildlife of all kinds, not just the charismatic megafauna, and they exhorted me to visit India's north-eastern hill states, Assam in particular. They knew their birds, too, and we swapped notes on what we'd seen in the evening, with the notable bird in common being the beautiful red-fronted serin.

They leave this morning to walk at a leisurely pace back down to Zingchan, wildlife viewing on the way. The walk in along the same route the previous day, Nehar said, almost killed her. I've enjoyed their good humour, their appreciation of all kinds of wildlife, their down-to-earth attitudes, and their excellent English which meant I could have a good discussion, and I'm sorry to see them go.

In the middle of the morning we walk a long way up the other tributary in the direction of the Kanda La. Small skinks scuttle for cover; a brown dipper flies along the stream and calls; a pair of red-billed choughs won't allow me close enough for a good photograph. The sight of the choughs gladdens me. Stanzin calls them crows, which in a sense they are, but the usage reminds me how anything resembling a crow -- ravens, rooks, the many types of crows, the choughs -- are all known by everyone except the bird people as just 'crows' and, more often than not, disliked or even hated.

On the way up the valley I stop to talk to the crazy Swiss or Austrian man. In fact, he's Swedish. He fries chipped potatoes over a small, efficient fire, not to eat now, he explains, but to carry for lunch; he wants to conserve his supply of firewood for when he's higher up where wood will be scarce. His big yellow sack apparently holds a supply of firewood. He's heading for Skiu and the Markha valley, he tells me, adding that the pony man estimates 5 hours so he'll probably take 15. His straggly beard has been singed by his fire, the shrivelled tips of his whiskers a fried-chip colour that looks like the tar stains of a bearded chain smoker. When we return towards midday, he's entertaining three local people and shows no sign of packing to begin his walk.

A middle-aged couple with heavy packs arrive in the afternoon after crossing Stok La. I talk with them in the evening. They come from Switzerland, although she's originally Turkish. He's an architect, thoughtful, with a wry sense of humour; she's a doctor and has been attending the sick man who, ever since we arrived, has been sleeping continuously outside. She's diagnosed a urinary tract infection that has spread to his kidneys; he needs antibiotics, she says. I offer the azithromycin from my kit but, soon after, a young woman arrives and it transpires she's a pharmacist with the needed antibiotics. The Swiss doctor had given him paracetamol to reduce his fever, which had already begun to subside, and by morning he's feeling much better. He's a lucky man.

Soon after dawn a black redstart hits the window of the room where Stanzin lies asleep and I sit, only half awake, wondering whether to get up and what to do if I do -- go for a walk? Write, crosslegged and uncomfortable at one of the low tables? The redstart flies off. Perhaps it was just snatching an insect. I get up and go next door to squat over the small rectangle in the compacted dirt floor, trying not to breathe the ammonia fumes from the open-air dung pile below. Afterwards I walk up the hill to the main building to write, only to be promptly served an early breakfast. The Swiss man joins me. In the direct way of many people with only basic English but a keen interest in their guests, the homestay woman asks what the man does for work, how old he is, what's the nature of his relationship with the woman, how old she is. In turn, he asks how old she is. Twenty-eight, she says. Her husband works in Leh. When the doctor arrives, the homestay woman enquires whether she has children.
'No time,' she replies, but she clearly has a way with children, picking up the one-year-old boy and cradling him and playing with him.

We leave at 7.45 a.m. under cloud that keeps the temperature bearable and, in a stroke of excellent luck, stays with us all the way to the pass with only brief breaks when the sun's intense heat reminds me how lucky we are. Where the trail begins to climb more steeply, Stanzin comes running back to urge me on; he's seen some big birds; vultures, he thinks. At first I think he's right, but when I get the binoculars on them I see they're not vultures at all, but some kind of megapode. They're big, beautiful birds with greyish backs and chestnut stripes along the flanks, and later, at Changma camp, I get the bird guide out and discover what we've been looking at are five Himalayan snowcock.

Stanzin easily outpaces me but, by simply not stopping to rest, I outpace everyone else on the route -- the two groups of French people and the battalion of Israelis trekking independently. 'Outpaced' is a relative term, however -- I don't recall ever having walked so slowly in any mountains. About five minutes from the summit of the La, Stanzin comes running back down, insisting on carrying my pack. He's delighted; 'You are the fastest!' he exclaims. I think he must feel his status among the locals has increased by having the fastest client, but although I admit some satisfaction, it feels largely pyrrhic -- mostly what I feel is relief at having finally reached the top.

After three quarters of an hour, a tetrapak of mango juice, and a small bar of chocolate that sticks uncomfortably to my teeth, we begin the descent. The contrast between the ascent and the descent could hardly be more striking; suddenly I feel almost back to my old self. Stanzin decides to take the shortcut -- directly down a very steep path of deep dust, and after a moment's hesitation I follow. It's just like a New Zealand scree run, except the substrate's deep, fine dust instead of shingle, and we drop rapidly -- maybe a few hundred metres in a matter of minutes. The shortcut meets a dusty, winding trail that leads down a steep gully, down which we trot at a good pace, and I manage to keep up with Stanzin. We reach Changma camp just under an hour after leaving the pass.

Sweet tea; a chance to rest. A young couple -- she from the UK, he from Spain -- and their personable guide arrive for lunch. I chat with them and, as they're about to leave, they offer me the mango juice from their packed lunches. I accept gratefully, drink one, and keep the other for the evening. I can feel a headache coming on, though, so I retire to the tent; this, however, is like an oven, so I shift to the area under the camp's canopy and lie down on one of the barely-padded benches. Then a French couple arrive; I sit up, chat with them, lie down when they leave, then get up again when the remaining French from the Pass arrive. Realising the Israeli army will arrive soon and probably continue to do so throughout the afternoon, I return to the oven-tent, take a couple of ibuprofen and manage some fitful sleep. When I'm finally woken by intense pain over and behind my right eye, the Israelis must have either passed through or got lost. I resort to the paracetamol + codeine tablets and return to sleep under the canopy. The next time I wake I'm much better and the headache has faded to a just-discernible pain. I've been lucky.

About the time I wake, two Indian guides arrive. They've somehow lost their clients. Long discussions with Stanzin and the young camp manager ensue, until the guides finally set off up the track. Five minutes later, the lost party arrives: six Germans. Stanzin whistles and shouts and beckons, and the guides eventually return. The leader of the Germans isn't happy. He insists they camp here; they're not acclimatised, he says, and the next camp is too high. The guide points out that the camping equipment is with the ponies; he blames the pony drivers for not stopping and says that for him to go ahead and bring the ponies back down will take at least three hours, by which time darkness will have fallen and the Germans will be freezing. Returning to Stok, from where they've just come, is the only option.

The leader flings his trekking pole down, swears, abuses the guide, and finally takes off his daypack and throws it at the low wall by the track, where it topples over into the dining area. He turns his back on the chastened guide and stalks off. No one does anything; everyone stands around. The younger of the two German women looks as if she's about to burst into tears.

Eventually I go over and suggest they might like to have some tea while they decide what to do. I ask how they're coping with the altitude. One of the German men shakes his head.
'Borderline,' he says.
I cautiously suggest that staying here might not be a good idea, and perhaps returning to Stok might be the best option. At least it's downhill. He nods and, glancing across, sees my bird guide in Stanzin's hands.
'You are an ornithologist?' he says.
Yes, I say, but not a serious ornithologist; I just like looking at the birds and other animals.
'You were on the Galapagos?' he asks.
I tell him yes, I loved it there, and he smiles and enthuses -- 'We too!' he says.
The young woman has the best English, and I commiserate with her a little. She seems to become more resigned to the prospect of returning to Stok. I suggest they could consider this good for helping them acclimatise, and she and some of the others laugh. The ice has broken.

They start the walk back to Stok, having seemed to appreciate my efforts, and I think they might even have looked forward to meeting us again tomorrow -- the older man asks if they'll see us as we walked out. Perhaps just having someone who understood their dismay and could offer a gentle alternative perspective encouraged them. The guide thinks I'm wonderful. I become his best friend; he thanks me profusely for having mollified his clients and shakes my hand several times. He continues to blame the pony drivers, probably with some justification; nevertheless, the whole fiasco could have been avoided with clearer communication among everyone right at the outset. This, however, is not as easy as it sounds when English is at best a second language for everyone and not one at all for the pony drivers.

At night the tent initially holds a little of the day's heat, and when that later dissipates I stay warm in the sleeping bag. Stanzin sleeps in the camp manager's stone hut, so I have plenty of room to wriggle about to find the right combination of depressions for my hip and shoulder; I keep waking to turn over, but quickly drop back to sleep. At 5.30 I get up and sit outside, prowl around a little, and watch the dawn sun light the most jagged rock formations imagineable. Black redstarts, mostly females, flit about all around the camp; chukar call and feed and fight nearby. No sign yet of Himalayan griffons, though. No bharal, no ibex, no argali, although I scan the high, rocky bluffs diligently.

We leave for Stok around mid morning, after I've tried with moderate success to photograph some of the small skinks that live in the low rock walls around the camp, and when the first trekkers and Stok Kangri climbers have begun to arrive. Staying longer would add nothing to the charm of Changma camp, which has relied much on its wonderful tranquility during the evening and morning when we three, all quiet by nature, were the camp's only human residents. Birds; the mountain wind ruffling and snapping the white and red satin MITRA flag; sunlight on the fearsome crags; the possibility of a vulture circling in the evening sky, or an ibex or argali high among those crags. The sound of the river, quieter in the morning when the meltwater flow has eased.

Ten minutes down the track, Stanzin calls out and points. There, cruising the length of a high rocky ridge, soars a large vulture. Through the binoculars I search for the ruff of a Himalayan griffon, but this bird has none, nor does it have the right markings, and the wings taper distinctly. I'm confident I'm looking at a juvenile lammergeier. That's good enough for me. I high-five Stanzin and congratulate him on his spotting, and he grins broadly, happy to see me so pleased.

Where the track climbs to a knoll from where we can see Stok shimmering in the near distance, we stop and wait. Our driver isn't due to arrive for another couple of hours and we both prefer to wait in the mountains than in a town. Trekkers and climbers (essentially identical because Stok Kangri is just a long slog) pass in both directions; yesterday's Germans skirt the base of the knoll to avoid the climb, so we miss the chance to meet and chat. Given their slow pace, however, an interruption to talk might not have been desirable. Their guide had arrived at Changma this morning, still clearly thinking I was a wonderful person. He explained how the Germans had found a good homestay and had calmed down, even apologising for the abuse. I hope the rest of the trek goes well, so their memories won't be tempered by the unfortunate incident.

I photograph a small, beautiful lizard with bright orange on the sides of the neck, sulphur yellow beneath, black patterning on its back -- the same kind I'd seen near the steps to the palace in Leh. I haven't seen urial, ibex, or argali, but how many visitors pay attention to, or even notice, these small, beautiful things?

Back in Leh, the call to prayer begins. I climb through my window onto the patio and sit listening, looking up at the tall, slender poplars swaying and rustling in the warm wind at dusk, the bright gibbous moon casting faint shadows, the last light gleaming on the snows and glaciers of the Ladakh Range from which I've just returned. As always, the call haunts me, and I understand at last one of the perils of travelling: how strange and distant places and the people you meet in them can sometimes break your heart in a way that makes you think it might never mend.

1. I've skipped ahead in this narrative, otherwise I'll fall too far behind. As usual, these are just selected impressions. Prepared in haste; please excuse errors.

1. The Rumbak Valley from near the start of the climb to Stok La.
2. Chorten near Rumbak.
3. Ponies on Stok La.
4. Mountainside near Rumbak.
5. The chorten with the bharal skulls at the entrance to the gorge.
6. Mitra flag at Changma Chan camp.
7. Evening meltwater. In the mornings, the water's almost clear and slightly bluish, and it's easy to boulder-hop across the rivers. Very different by evening.

Photos and original text © 2014 Pete McGregor