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Flags, Pigs, And Peeing Out A Second Story Window. India, 1982

An ongoing and occasional series of long posts about a 3-month trip I took to India in 1982. I was 25, and traveled by train across the country alone, writing an article on the then-unknown Indian film industry and combating the anxieties of youth and solo travel. Often includes references to what I wore. I kept journals, and abstract them in these page. You can find the previous posts by clicking on the “India” topic in the sidebar, or a Google map of the trip, here.

trekking from Darjeeling to Sandakphu

Having failed to leave Darjeeling for Sikkim, I needed another plan.

I had by now been traveling for two and half months. I knew some things. “Right, then,” I must have thought, “Is there a tourist center?” Or maybe I asked the desk clerk at my hotel what I might do for the next few days.

The next few days included Easter. I did not grow up in a religious family, but we had always hunted for Easter eggs, dyeing and crayoning them in kitchen after kitchen. House after house.

Darjeeling did have a tourist center. They told me I could hike up to Sandakphu and see Kachenjunga from a distance. Sandakphu is the highest point in the Indian state of West Bengal, at 11,929 feet. Kachenjunga, the 3rd highest mountain in the world. The tourist center also told me that, since said hike required a knowledge of trails and two overnight stays, I should hire a guide. And, by the way, the guides were outside waiting.

Trekking from Darjeeling to Sandakphu

Whether I chose the man in the knit hat, or he chose me, I do not remember. I wondered if I was nuts. “Is this safe?” I thought, “Should I really wander off into the mountains of India by myself with a young man who speaks almost no English and whose name I cannot decipher?” I figured that it would be OK.

Luckily, I was right. We have to remember the context.

My guide provided me with someone else’s  hat and jacket. That was that. Off we went.

Trekking from Darjeeling to Sandakphu

Of course, to the young girl above, my expedition was just a morning walk with Grandmother. You know how young European teenagers carrying huge backpacks lumber through American financial districts, surrounded by office workers in broadcloth? That was me, in sneakers and a parka along the path.

A path that fronted mountains,

…and native rhododendrons. Today rhododendrons decorate California’s ranch houses like outdoor wallpaper, remnants of mid-century landscaping that knew nothing of droughts or xeriscaping. Along the India-Nepal border of 1982, these were  fierce shrubs indeed. Like zoo animals in the wild.

We walked all day, until the light began to temper. Arriving at a little village, we set down our packs.

Fog rolled in. Here we were to spend the night. The family made a living offering sleeping space to passing hikers.

This is a picture of the bed in the front room. Pages from movie magazines decorated and insulated the walls..

I wrote,

I find myself in a village without electricity, where they’ve never seen a watch that beeps, where Tibetan flags wave and everyone speaks Nepali…The grass is green enough to swim in. Colors take on deeper hues in silence, deepest of all in silence enclosed by fog. Even me, in red pants and the old man’s sweater, even I take on a deeper hue.

My guide and I ate with the family, squatting around a large pot heated over a fire on the ground. I don’t remember feeling apprehensive, or uncomfortable in the slightest.

I wrote more, perhaps suffering by now from slight altitude intoxication,

Quiet nights fall darker than nights lit by cries and horns and brilliant spitting. Nights like an open door, easy, safe and provoking thoughts of eternity. Birds. Birds and children. Birds, children and shivers. A flag waving, seaweed in a wave, silent breezes. Bell ringing to bring in night free of spirits. An empty fullness of self.

Rereading my journals, 30 years later, I want to tell young people that most of the time it is enough to simply observe.

Time came for sleep. I was ushered, respectfully and with ceremony, to a large room high above the pig pen. It was the family place of worship, empty except for a bed and a large altar. They showed me how they were locking the room so I would be safe. With a key, from the outside.

I slept.

I woke up. And I had to pee. My apologies to you and to my Aunt Priscilla for the use of this term in print. Not that I don’t say the word, not being a prissy sort, but it feels quite odd to type. After careful consideration, I decided that euphemism would be worse. This is often true.

I was infinitely too embarrassed to wake the non-English speaking family and communicate my problem in sign language. I was also quite clear that I could not use any of the bowls on the altar, although the thought crossed my mind. Talk about breaking protocol. And the room was way too high up to exit through the window.

Which left one option. Thus I clambered, pants off, into the window frame, and squatted half in and half out. A genetic capability for optimism kept me laughing even while trying not to fall through the window. I do not think I worried much about toilet paper, under the circumstances.

I can only hope the pigs didn’t mind.

Next morning the grandmother, or she might have been the mother, had someone translate that one of her little girls had expired, December 11th. I noted that in my journal, and said nothing about my nighttime manoeuvres. Priorities correct. What do you do when you’re 25, in the foothills of the Himalayas, listening to tragedies that you get to leave behind? Say thank you for the food and pay your bill. So I did.

Off we went. A little boy bade me Namaste.

The climb grew steep. I followed my guide. The effort felt very close to too much, but I kept going. If you think about it, I could have asked to stop. Again, youth.

We arrived at Sandakphu in the dark. We shared the traveler’s hut with two men, one named Peter Spottiswood, and one, apparently, Helmut. Or so my notes tell me.

Easter Sunday dawned foggy. Had we been granted we clear skies, you’d see all kinds of mountains at my back. Instead, all I’ve got to show is a borrowed hat and jacket, city wool pants, and American sneakers. Also a girl grin. I didn’t mind the lack of promised view at all. Who can mourn vistas when you’ve peed out a window onto Nepali-speaking pigs?

I wrote,

I climbed up to 12,300 feet, but I didn’t see any mountains. The chocolate Easter egg I had bought was broken in the backpack, so I shared it with my guide & the owner of this guest house. I didn’t see a cross, a bonnet, a rabbit or a rising soul.

…I know what Kachenjunga looks like though. I saw it from the bus.

The next day we ran down all the mountains in one go. I wrote,

I have always had such a fear of going downhill. I hate the feeling that at any minute I might lose control and go rolling away over the stores. Well, Peter Spottiswood told me how to walk downhill. “Just let gravity do it,” he said.

I remember feeling scared and exhilarated by our pell-mell descent.

Now that I’m 56, and living in Northern California suburban comfort, if I let gravity do it I’d never leave my faux suede sofa.  Feet on the coffee table. I wonder if it’s a cheap trick to note that you’ve got to put yourself atop a mountain to be able to trust gravity and call it friend. Pigs, of course, pigs are all serendipity.

27 Responses

  1. The little boy wishing you namaste is one of the best pictures I’ve ever seen on the internet. I’ll remember that image. Thanks for posting!

  2. What an amazing story. Made me laugh and think. These experiences are really what make a life. Thank you for sharing!

  3. That picture of the little kid is touching, but my favorite is the last one, of you. You really look just like you’ve been to the top of the world. Also, it is hard to believe that you are 25 in that photo; your kids should send you written thank-yous for inheriting those genes.

  4. It isn’t just the experience, it is your recollection of it and the way you have laid the words out on the paper that make this post so appealing!

  5. <3

    I can't believe you peed out of a window. On to pigs. You of all people. That's truly wonderful.

    I used to hate going downhill too, now I love it, the letting go and knowing that you probably won't hurt yourself too badly if you fall, and even if you do, you'll probably fix.

  6. I simply can’t believe how fearless you are. Never, ever, ever would I have had the guts. And see what I missed! Wonderful, I’m so glad to at least share it thru stories and photos.

  7. I think you can mourn little when you’ve peed out of a window onto Nepali-speaking pigs. What wonderful spirit, lady!

  8. What a wonderful experience! I very much enjoyed reading about and seeing the photos of your trip. Thank you for sharing it. We are the same age. I envy you that fabulous and freeing time. Wish I done something amazing like that at that age. Kudos!

  9. I do hope you will find a moment and chance to see “Daughter’s of Wisdom” a documentary about a Tibetan Buddhist monastery. I love hearing of the tales and travels that no doubt shaped the fine woman you are today.

  10. Am spellbound by the effect of (slight) altitude intoxication on your writing. All of it marvelous, but that para positively vibrates. Another magical India post to gobble, then reread at leisure- thank you!

  11. Wonderful and colorful post. I love the way you wrote when you were that age as well. It reminded me so much of a trip I did on the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, only wish I’d kept a journal. I don’t like downhill either, which is why I’m not a skier. What an amazing and courageous trip for anyone, but at 25 and alone…….

    1. Lisa ~ Have you gone back to India, or do you want to? I’ve always wanted to ask you this question, after your India posts.

  12. *standing & clapping* When you get around to the book signings for your inevitable travel memoir, I’ll be the first in line.

    That photo of the boy in the red cap is just . . . beyond my ability to capture it in words. What a photo.

  13. I live in India, and I’ve never done anything like that. I need to go trekking in the mountains soon.

  14. “A genetic capability for optimism kept me laughing even while trying not to fall through the window.”…I know exactly what you mean. Aren’t life’s experiences truly hilarious? And magical.

  15. Yes, I love that you did this. Love the picture of the little boy, and the one of you on the mountaintop, both very sweet and youthful (in different ways). I am also afraid of going downhill too fast. And I’m proud of you for peeing when you needed to! Hee hee.

  16. Am I the ONLY one who sees really significant glimpses of your daughter K.C. in that last photo of you? I’m too lazy to read all of the comments.

  17. This is a wonderful post. Beautiful photos, especially you at 25. I hesitated to write my response since it truly isn’t lady like… for many well travelled women of a certain age.. all the places we have peed might be kind of an interesting essay?

  18. I love the girl grin :). Boy, I was getting worried about the window. So glad to know you didn’t fall through!

    The picture of the little boy bidding Namaste is so sweet.

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