Wednesday, November 20, 2002

"Life is like a journey -- make it complete." This was just one of the signs along the trecherous, nasty roads that carried us into the mountains of Kumoan, away from the broad Indian plains and towards to Himalayas. But it was another post that really got me laughing as we edged along in our Tata Sumo, an moderately-sized SUV bearing two Americans, a family of four Indians, the driver, a pair of Pithorogarh locals, and a pair of silent male passengers in the back: "Safety first -- speed second."

Why even mention speed at all, right? That's what I thought, happy to know that my impression of speed was being augmented by the 2-3,000 foot drop off to my right and the busses and "public transport" (private trucks, though not 18-wheelers) careening around the hills in the opposite direction. Festooned though most vehicles are with ribbons and small godheads, making them look festive and jovial, this getting into the mountains was pretty serious business -- and I was convinced, now that we were on our third driver, that Darwin's laws of fitness notwithstanding, our man was not really up to the challenge.

Fortunately, as these word's obviously testify, I was wrong. But just barely, as we blew out our bushings some 30 KM from our destination, and had to crawl the final hour up to the valley where Pithorogarh, our current location, is found. Of course, the smell of burning brakes hadn't done much for my confidence either. Then on the outskirts of town, despite a near constant checking of luggage on the roof -- including three of our bags, containing all our clothes, most of supplies, camping gear and medical items, and no small portion of the electronic gear we're toting -- a small bucket lost its top. This necessitated a full evacuation of the Tata, which was already light 3-4 original passengers due to the suspension problems. After a little more dithering, a small boy of about 12 hopped down into the ravine where our driver feared to tread and returned the plastic lid to its rightful owner.

Having made it to Pithorogarh in one piece, though, I'm pretty pleased. Not nearly as crowded as Delhi, featuring only about 50,000 souls, this is the seat of the Kumoan district, hard by Nepal, and from the Hindu temples and the town square alike, you can look out to jagged snow-capped peaks that are the beginnnings of the great Himalayan arc. Don't be fooled, though, this is no adventure destination, and children and adults hereabouts all look upon our pasty (or quasi-pasty) American skin, our exotic dress and funky sunglasses with a mixture of awe and derision. Thankfully, a well-placed bow and utterance of "Namaste" goes pretty dang far, and the tea houses are in fine proliferation, meaning hot beverages in quiet stalls provide a place to reflect on how glad we are to have arrived in one piece.

Today, we make the final leg of this trip to Christina's research village, some 90 KM to the town of Dharchula. Not much there if you ask C, but ask me and a little peace and quiet in a mountain sounds divine. To start, we'll be up for at least a week I'm guessing before returning to Pithorogarh for resupply of all manner. We've been told to get used to eating plenty of potatoes this winter, which should be no problem, since they are well-spiced with cumin, corriander, ginger and red pepper. There's still much to report on all we have seen, but at this rate it will have to wait for another day.

Namaste, friends, for the time being.

Sunday, November 17, 2002

Every good Delhi-walla has an auto riskshaw tale to tell, here's mine: Last week, as we grew oriented with New Delhi, I was required to travel solo to the Foreigner's Registration office. Christina and I had made the trip once, but I needed an additional stamp, and so prepared to set out on my own -- a task easier said than done. For those who don't know, the auto riskshaws in New Delhi are three-wheeled contraptions that look like stubby phone booths welded to Vespa scooters. They are painted green or brown, depending on what kind of fuel they burn, but most notably, when you ride in one of these open-sided autos, you get good blasts of diesel from passing trucks and busses.

Needless to say, it can be quite harrowing to ride the crowded streets in a rickshaw, but there are times -- like when you're heading far south to a special bureaucratic meeting that they come in handy. Otherwise, when you walk, you'll be approached about every 25 yards as the auto drivers offer to provide a good ride for you -- at a good price. Of course, being an obvious foreigner, this price is substantially more than locals pay, although generally you can negotiate the total cost; something you should always do before embarking on your journey. Ironically, despite the fact that you are dealing with mere dimes and quarters rather than dollars (hey, this ain't New York), everybody acts as their life depends upon 5 rupees. Being a good Jew, and a penny-pinching freelancer, I'm right at home arguing these ridiculous prices. A dollar will generally get you a half-mile ride or so; for 25-30 rupees (around 75 cents) we can get almost anywhere we need from where we are staying!

Hence, I grab a quick stand-up lunch at Connaught Place near the center of town, which costs Rs 20 (less than 50 cents for a filling late of lentils, rice, hot bread, sweet yoghurt, etc), and then approach the first group of autos I see. "To the Registration Office!" I charge, "How much?" Sixty, I am told. "Thirty," I bargain. Sixty. Thirty. Sixty. Forty (I'm cracking -- again, we're talking about a little more than a quarter). Fifty. "Forty, final," I demand; my driver complies with the universal shrug these guys use as a sign of assent, as well as gratitude. We're off

Only it turns out the driver knows not where we're going. First, around the corner to the old New Delhi train station, where apparently the registration office used to be. I KNOW this is wrong, and explain that I need the Hyatt-Regency, which is around the corner from where we need to be. (Adding insult to injury the ride from Connaught Place should only cost Rs 15.) So then we stop to talk to another driver-walla, who insists that I should be at the ITO Building. Wrong again, but nobody believes the foreigner could know more than the cab driver. We renogotiate a new price. The same 40 will stand to the ITO office, but it will cost me another 60 for being right if they have to take me to the Registration Office by the Hyatt. Lo and behold, I am right.

Down Rs 100, but undaunted, I finally get to the right place, after about 40 minutes of driving around, and discover that it will be 10 more minutes until the faithful Indian bureaucrats return from lunch and provide me with the single stamp I need for my passport/registration card. My driver is now waiting for me, and we've established something of a rapport, so when I get this stamp, I hop back in his auto rickshaw. "I owe you 100," I say, "I will pay 20 more for the return." This brings a small smile, a shrug of comprehension, and then as we roll I think I am being too stingy. "As you like," he says, surprising me.

So we get back to our digs, and I decide that I'll tip an extra dime, bringing my total to something like Rs 140. I place the money in his hand. "That's low, sir," he says. I add a small pile of change, and shrug. "That's what I got," I say, "It's fair." Low. Fair -- after all, I didn't get us lost, and so I walk away.

It's a totally typical circumstance that happens every day. But, of course, it just goes to show how flexible and negotiable every last transaction is here in Delhi. Now, we're off to the Himalayas, and I can only hope my loose change gets me a little further in my negotiations. Wish me luck!