Wednesday, July 16, 2003

The slippery retreat from the glacier left us with a hankering to get off the high ground. In fact, after 8 months of Indian travel, having bounced literally from coast-to-coast on the Subcontinent, the inclination to run back to Dharchula, back to Delhi and eventually all the way home to Texas took hold; it didn't hurt that my plane ticket was stamped with a July 21 departure date.

So, we hot-footed it back down the Darma Valley, retracing our path along the Dhauli Ganga, crossing glaciers and bridges every couple of miles, skipping across whitewater streams, and keeping our fingers crossed that the monsoon would stay away and the mountain deities would let us pass. There was no problem on either account, and as we crossed the third or fourth bridge and dropped the second tongue of snow behind us, we entered into a wild verdant nest of wallnut and oak, leaving behind the deodar pines at higher altitudes. Bodies on the path increased the lower we found ourselves, meeting with more goatherds, more workers, more housewives carrying wood for their cooking fires in the valley.

It took two days from Duntu/Duktu to reach Sela; a full 12 days after our first encounter with the rural Darma and my hypothermic fit. The little hotel was void of visitors, and the night looked to be quiet. A lone yellow dog sat on the steps of the dormitory, and scared the bejeezus out of me in the middle of the night when it appeared out of the darkness. From time to time, she would let out a howl or bark for a few minutes. Even with no sun, the weather proved to be warmer, and we slept soundly otherwise with the Dhauli rushing by outside our window.

The final day was a hard series of high, cliffside paths moving up and down above the valley floor, some thousand feet below. It was harrowing, hard walking, and the wind was blowing great clouds up and over our tracks, spraying us with the rains that had finally come to Darma. After four hours of hiking, we stopped for snacking alongside a small shrine, and then descended finally to the village of Dur, at the foot of Darma Valley, where a rocky jeep track provides a supply line to the outside world.

It was a typical re-entry scenario: We managed to obtain lunch from the general store (more Maggie noodles) and answered questions from the gathering of men with seemingly nothing better to do. A few showed the sort of wonderful generosity that seems to be departing the region bit by bit, while others were full drunk at 2 o'clock in the afternoon. When asked whether we should continue to the next village, some 3 miles downhill distant, the response was correspondingly contradictory.

On the one hand, we were assured a car would arrive. On the other, we were told that the best bet would be to keep on keeping on. After waiting some time, we decided on the latter course of action, which surprised our new fan club -- with good reason, since the big blue truck that had been resting idle since we'd sauntered up hours earlier was now ready to rumble in just the direction we were going. Along with about a dozen school boys headed back to civilization for the new semester, two dogs, a drunkard and our heavy loads, we climbed aboard.

And, here's the kicker: Waiting at our next stop was the daily bus from Sobla to Dharchula, scheduled to leave at 4. So inconceivable was it that the crew at Dur didn't know about this ride that I nearly ran back up the hill to give those guys a piece of my mind. I mean, it was one thing to misunderstand that we were feeling under the gun to get back to Dharchula, and therefore somehow neglect to explain that the GIANT blue truck would be leaving shortly if a shared jeep didn't arrive (we passed several likely headed all the way to Dur after the bus got underway) but to fail to note that the bus would be waiting if we wanted to hoof it, well... that's just the sort of thing that makes India so freaking aggravating. Had we known, we would have hiked out to the bus on our own steam, instead of waiting for the truck that nobody seemed inclined to advertise as a possibility when the jeeps were obviously in short supply and would have never made Sobla in time for the bus. Heavy sigh...

Less than a week later, we said our sad goodbyes to our friends in Dharchula, and rolled onward to Delhi. That's where I'm sitting now, sweltering in the monsoon humidity, with a couple of days to kill before my return to the West. I don't have high hopes for a smooth ride, but with Texas on the horizon, I've got my fingers crossed for a smooth landing.