Wednesday, May 28, 2003

Lest anybody think that I have become inured to the rigors of travel in India, let me just say that I don’t care what your “mind-state” might be, three days straight is too long to be on the road in this country.

I left Manali last week, and headed down the picturesque Kullu Valley framed by white-capped mountains in search of trout. I found my way to the Tertian River, a tributary of the main river the Beas, which had yielded no fish in the days before; the Tertian unfortunately would also prove stubborn with my quarry. Along the way to these fabled honey holes past the main valley, I also took a side detour to the small, strange town of Malana, where the children leap out of your way to avoid being touched. If you get the impression that I covered a lot of ground during the course of my return, you win a prize.

So, Malana: this is a place that I wanted to see vis-à-vis rumors of a strange language being spoken and a rather primitive culture still in place. The town is way up a hillside past Jari, a small outpost on the banks of the Parbati River, a stone’s throw from the hippy hangout of Kasol, where the Israelis and English ravers gather for their full-moon parties. I might have guessed from these reports that I was headed to the heart of Hash Country, but the fact is that I anticipated visiting a ritualistic little community in Malana, and not the cultivation capital that I found high in the hills.

Rather, the whole of the Parbati Valley, especially around Kasol, is geared to provide the party people with plenty of smoke, supplying hashish to most regions of India. It didn’t take long being in Malana to be offered a chillum, and then another, and yet one more. (I didn’t inhale, er, honest… cough-cough.)

Turns out that the folks in Malana really don’t like visitors much, and they only tolerate foreigners because of the income they represent. In fact, their mistrust, disdain or whatever it is remains so entrenched that the Malana hire people from the surrounding towns to work the few guesthouses they have in their small valley. There were about 200-300 wooden homes with slate roofs nestled in the little sub-alpine alcove, where the Malana live year round amidst thick-growing pines and small plots cleared to make way for potatoes and other crops. The language was tough to pick up, but sure didn’t sound like any of the Hindi or mountain dialects I have tripped across in the last 6 months. Somebody said that the Malanans might have been descended from Greeks who came alongside Alexander the Great way back when, but this seemed to be a conflation of facts from other parts of India.

After a day in Malana, snapping photos and visiting with a slightly nutty South African woman and her young daughter traveling along similar paths to my own, I felt the urge to keep on keeping on, The Malana River, I was told, didn’t have any fish, and despite the kind bud, my interest in Indian baking wasn’t strong enough to anchor me there.

So it was on down to the Tertian River to try for brown trout. When that didn’t work out, I hit the road again for my return trip to Dharchula. I did see some pictures of the lunkers available in the Himalaya, however, including wily browns imported by the locals and occasional escaped rainbows first introduced by the British and now farmed to supply some of the Manali restaurants. Needless to say, I will make a point of trying my luck fishing in India again, but even in the mountains now the summertime temps are melting the glaciers. Plenty of cold rushing water is pouring into the rivers, shoving the fish out of their regular hide-y holes; I lost about 10 flies – mostly nymphs and streamers – proving this point.

Coming back to Dharchula took an all-day bus ride, an overnight train adventure – I couldn’t seem to find the sleeper car, and ended up sharing benches with various Indian families through the night – a second all-day bus (during which I caught up on some much needed shut-eye) and finally a day of shared jeeps winding up and over the mad hills of Kumaon.

In a word, it was a brutal trip; I swear if and when we return to this part of the world, you’ll find me on a motorbike. The other option is just to torturous to contemplate.