Life in the Himalayas can be a back-breaking, sweat-inducing, animal-battling paradise.
My house was a two story construction of clay with a wooden balcony and attic. It had been well lined with cow shit for insulation and the balcony looked out over apple orchards that ran down to an icy stream that provided a constant chatter. With my house set on a slope the balcony felt like an island in the air and I used to sit for hours gazing down valley at the snowy glaciers to the south. I was as poor as shit but I awoke every morning to mountains for breakfast and there was no price you could put on that. I thought of all the people making the big bucks in London and New York who woke everyday to an alarm clock and sirens in the city below.
My landlady was a wizened old lady of 65 years who would only accept a glass of chai if I offered it to her three times. Then she’d squat down between her petticoats and warn me about the dangers of thieves and cows. The latter ate her flowers.
“Gai!” She cried, making the motion to pick up a stick, “Gai Chalo Pakistan !” (‘Tell the cow to go to Pakistan!’ – an unforgivable insult in India)
Her face was covered with wrinkles and her skin was like old leather. Her eyes were small and gleaming and she wore felt boots with the cleft in the big toe. All summer it was troubling me that she seemed familiar somehow and then it struck me – she looked exactly like the lizards that spent the days scampering over the rocks.
When my water pipe got blocked I’d have to walk down to her home in the village and beg for help. She’d tried to show me how to unblock the pipe but I’d been unable to keep up with her on the slopes. Whilst I slipped and stumbled and held onto trees for dear life, this bony old woman of 65 didn’t miss a step. She even filled her pockets with wild vegetables as she went.
After 9 months of never knowing from day to day where I would lay my head I was in seventh heaven in my mud hut up on the hill. I spent days and days up there without any intention of heading down to the village . With a little stereo, a few books and pots of green tea I had just about all I needed to find my own happiness alone.
Well not quite alone. You’re never completely by yourself in nature and my Himalayan social circle quickly filled up with lizards, spiders and crows. The lizards were the most innocent of these, making my heart stop when they skipped across the balcony and landed in my bowl of soup.
The spider was simply an arachnid without a trace of education. I first found him in the corner of the window and it looked like he had plans to move in. A friend advised me to start up a dialogue.
“Now look,” I told him one afternoon, “This house is big enough for the two of us and you’re welcome to all the flies you can catch. But just don’t try any funny stuff. I’m warning you.”
Then later that night I awoke to 8 legs running across my face as I slept. The fucker. There were rats who opened up my bags of sugar and caterpillars who crawled down the wall to make their home in my cardigans but that was all okay. The crows, on the other hand, had it in for me from the beginning.
Science has shown that crows are one of the few creatures that can look at a problem and solve it without resorting to trial and error. There was even supposedly a lost Sanscrit text that was based on a study of the language of crows. Smooth operators, make no mistake.
The trouble first started when I went to wash. Not inclined to go down to the temple baths in the village, I dragged a bucked of cold water down the slope and poured it over myself while the wind tried to give me hypothermia. After a while I noticed that each time I left the balcony a sentry crow gave a warning croak and then an accomplice swooped in to create havoc in my kitchen. The next time I went to wash I took a few stones with me and the invader got a nasty shock.
After that war had been declared and crows would pass every now and then, land on the rock facing my house and mock me; They flapped their wings and squawked like a kid calling me chicken in the playground. I began to store rocks and hardened chapatti dough by my balcony rail.
A week later I climbed a nearby rock to wash my clothes. I scrubbed my shirts with a bar of soap and tried to kid myself that they were actually getting cleaner rather tha just wet. Then – and I swear I’m telling the truth – 3 crows tiptoed up behind me and with a 1-2-and-3 they let rip with a collective squawk that almost stopped my heart and sent me falling down the mountain slope. They laughed about it for days. The bastards.
The Himalayas weren’t for wimps. It was a place where you had to have your shit together and no mistake. Every time you went anywhere you were locked in a struggle with gravity. You could tumble down the mountain and exhaust yourself going up. Smokers paid heavily here and most of my visitors arrived at my house in a coughing fit, unable to speak for several minutes.
Most travellers lived in guesthouses in the village and ate in the restaurants there. But for those of us with our own houses we had to haul our shopping up the slopes, arrange for the coolies to bring up our refilled gas bottles and be self-reliant in nature. I spent an entire morning attempting to make a roof for my outside toilet. I took a sheet of tarp, some rope and a knife and set about looping rope through branches of trees and tying knots around large rocks.
After many hours of sweat and labour I succeeded in diverting all the rain water into a steady stream on top of my head as a squatted on the planks of wood. Finally, I took to taking an umbrella with me each time I went to take a shit.