Exploring the Himalayas of India

Prati and Cayden sit outside the main
temple in the complex at Jageshwar.
Prati and Cayden sit outside the main temple in the complex at Jageshwar.

It was 5 a.m. when we reached the hotel room in Almora - Prati, three-month-old Cayden and me. I placed the baby on the bed and sank down next to him. Prati surveyed the room, hand on hip.

"It's kind of stuffy in here," she said to the attendant in Hindi. "Do you have a fan?"

He shook his head.

"We may have to find another room."

I had yet to complain about anything on that journey, which started the previous noon with a mad rush to the Delhi train station on my second, jetlagged day in India.

I did not complain about the heat, which encircled me like a boa constrictor-turned-wool blanket, or the crushing jostle on the station platform. Not a word as a six-hour ride north stretched into eight and a cohort of neighboring passengers continued to stare at my pale skin and western clothing.

I cradled Cayden without comment in an auto-rickshaw at 1 a.m. as we searched for a hotel in the town where we disembarked, and I sat quietly in the shared taxi that Prati decided to take instead, though for the three-hour ride on a precipitous road hugging the Himalayas the driver shifted gears into my thigh and his swerving made me motion sick.

When we reached Almora around 4 a.m., Prati had a shouting match with the driver (after he lifted down our luggage) for trying to charge us double the fare. Then Prati left me on the deserted roadside holding the baby so she could climb up to the hotel.

Guard dogs heard her approach and barked, and soon a dog cacophony echoed through the neighborhood. She retreated, and we shuffled down the street in search of another hotel. Then we climbed a final, endless mountain staircase to the room with no fan, only to find that we might have to climb some more.

I verged on panic, unaccustomed to so much uncertainty. It was early in my two-week visit, and I still needed to learn the philosophy that kept Prati unfazed and seemed to be shared by most people I met in India, even at 5 a.m. on a deserted Himalayan road: "No problem."

I met Prati last year at Blissworks, the yoga studio in downtown New London. She worked at Pfizer and her husband, Don, was stationed on the Groton Submarine Base. She invited me to breakfast one weekend morning after a yoga class, and we discovered that they lived around the corner from my apartment.

Prati, who grew up in a village in the Indian state of Rajasthan, was the youngest of three and felt deprived of a younger sister to order around. She soon began feeding me and bugging me to get a haircut.

She learned she was pregnant with Cayden shortly before Don found out he was being re-stationed at Guantanamo Bay during her second trimester. In December, he left for his new assignment and she moved back to India to have the baby with her family.

Cayden was born on March 23, and Prati called me from the hospital with the news. As soon as we knew that he was a healthy, thriving infant, we began planning my trip to visit them. We agreed to explore New Delhi, where her sister lives, and Uttarakhand, a northern state in the Himalayas where the altitude makes it marginally cooler.

I awoke in the fanless hotel in Almora, Uttarakhand, about three months after Prati's hospital phone call, and we set off on what would become the model for our days exploring the scenery: We selected a destination a few kilometers away and then walked there. That day, we picked a Tibetan restaurant and set off.

It's a simple-sounding plan, but the truth is that we made a scene everywhere we went. The locals know it's really too hot to wander around in the middle of the day in June. They followed our progress from inside shops - a white woman and an Indian woman, both wearing western clothing in an area little exposed to the wider world, pushing a stroller that cost more than many villagers make in a month.

Those who peered into the stroller grew more mystified upon seeing Prati's baby who, thanks to his Texan papa, looks much more like me.

But I stared right back.

There are cows, dogs and monkeys roaming freely in the streets there. In all the places we visited except Ranikhet, which is a city mostly run by the Indian army, people dispose of garbage by tossing it onto the roadside. Women float in vibrant, patterned saris or elegant tunics over flowing pants. Some walk carrying massive rice sacks atop their heads without holding onto them.

Trucks, cars, scooters, rickshaws, motorcycles, pushcarts and cow herders compete for road space. Storefronts have big, open entrances that allow light to enter when the electricity fails, which it often does. ("No problem.") The start of monsoon season was delayed, leading to widespread drought. Yet everywhere we went, cell phone service was flawless.

In Uttarakhand, every step on the road yielded a panoramic mountain view. We walked to a bazaar in Almora that required carrying the stroller up a steep flight of stairs (one man said to another as we passed, "No worries - foreigners like to do everything themselves."), a bazaar in Ranikhet that required carrying the stroller down a steep flight of stairs and a shawl factory in Kausani, where we taught one of its employees to use my camera.

We explored a temple complex in Jageshwar whose oldest buildings date to the eighth century. Prati left Cayden with a nearby shopkeeper. In India, playing "pass the baby" is no problem.

And we stopped at the Mritola Ashram, a religious retreat built in 1930 by the wife of a nearby university's president who decided to renounce nonreligious life. It was tucked at the top of an unmarked dirt road and behind a farm. A large Caucasian man named Dave who grew up in India and wore a polo shirt and a traditional wrap-around skirt explained how he had lived and meditated there for 30 years. With its bursts of flowers, shady sylvan nooks and unparalleled Himalayan view, that ashram is the closest I will ever come to heaven on earth.

We ended our trip returning to the smoggy congestion of Delhi, where we devoured mangos, sought gifts at the city's prominent shopping area, Connaught Place, and Prati finally convinced me to get that haircut.

I'm glad I did. Now, every time life here overwhelms, I can look in the mirror and see "no problem" there.


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