Friday, February 07, 2003

There are few small pleasures we are finding that are making Dharchula more liveable. We just took off this week for a three-week tour of Orissa and points South. C has a conference, and after a month straight in the hinterlands, I'm guessing this break will do us both some good. But first things first:

We moved! Shifting from the shitty -- truth be told -- Tourist Rest Center run by the government tourism bureau to a small flat adjoining that of an older woman and her 18-year-old son. The place is brand, spanking new, with marble floors and high ceiling, built in shelves, a garden out back, and a great roof where we catch morning sun and check out the stars at night. The woman is a widow of indeterminate age, and is speaking no more English than I am Hindi -- which is to say not much. Just the same, she is super sweet and has a pixie-like glint in her eye. She is of the Byansh tribe, a group related to the Darma, who C is studying. Her son is shy, and we are under strict instructions to teach him English. In the meantime, she has been feeding us and making us feel very welcome in her home. "Family," she says, simply, "family...."

And so we are, sitting crosslegged on the floor puzzling through conversations about life and traditions both in her home village and our own.

Not that everything is always so peachy. I had one of my rudest awakenings to the reality of life in the hills, when a friend invited me fishing with him last Sunday. The day was bright blue skies all the way, and after a couple of days of rain, we were happy to see some snow lingering on the nearby hills. Having spent much of the week moving -- and avoiding the rain -- it felt good to be headed to a small stream some 4 kilometers from the town of Dharchula, flyrod in hand, to see what we might scare up. (Everybody in India who we've met, pretty much, has seen at least a picture or two of me showing off some tasty Montana trout.) So off we set up this beautiful valley to see who might be found in this stream.

Pointing to a small pool, my friend indicates that this spot is holding some fish, and as I angle my way to a good vantage point, I see the telltale flashes of a few small fish dashing between the rocks below. Stringing my rod rapidly, my companion and his friend, who is carrying a suspicious-looking backpack, tolerate a few casts as I switch tiny nymphs trying desperately to find something the quarry will take in the bottom of the hole. It's not fast-moving water or anything, so presentation turns out to be pretty much a jigging motion, standing far enough back to not cast a shadow. First one fish and then another nose the flies, but basically nothing's doing. So I shrug my shoulders, and let the experts get to work.

They start by reaching into their rucksack to reveal a bag of bleach. I am crushed. They mix the white powder with sand and load the concoction into a burlap sack, which they then beat along the rocks upstream of the hole where I had just been fishing. The water clouds with the bleach, which spreads its toxic effect like smoke racing ahead of an underwater fire. After some time, a few small fish come to the surface, spinning, their nervous systems wrecked, the water that sustains them roasting their gills in a toxic stew. These partners in ecological crime then strip to their skivvies and sprint downstream collecting some 5-pounds of fish. I feel sick, so sick, like crying.

Rivers are said to be goddesses in this part of India, and we're killing this one, I think. When I ask when the fish will return to this stream, I'm told six months. When I examine the fish, I see that they could not take the hook because their mouths are too small: Silver sucker fish and scaly carp-looking species are all they've got, maxing out at 8-9 inches in size, a whole bag full. Despite my feelings about the matter, I eat them when they are cooked. Better to not let this go to waste, I rationalize -- and then find myself chastised when I fail to consume the heads, fins and full skeletons of these small fry as my host and his family do.

Live and learn, I suppose. But I cannot help but think that a conservation lesson must come soon to these people or there will be nothing left worth preserving when India finally reaches its goal of "development."

But I hate to end this on a sad note. So instead, let me tell you about how nice it feels to have a sun-warmed towel applied when your local barber finishes shaving your face. My guy has given me three haircuts since we arrived in India; this last came as we prepared to undertake our current journey to Orissa on the East Coast and Kerala/Tamil Nadu in the South. By the end of the weekend, we should be soaking in the hot sun by the Bay of Bengal. But first, it was necessary to groom myself: A 75-cent haircut buys me a scalp massage, a beard trim and neck shave, tea and the fine feeling of knowing that I'm benefitting the local economy in my own way.

I walk away feeling like a few thousand rupees, and am ready now to face whatever comes next.