Makin’ Life — Operation Groundswell India/Nepal

I walk down Main Bazaar, the banana peels to the ground as I eat them. I reach my tea stand, a man on a platform, his knees against his chest, sitting on a small stool, spooning masala and sugar into his crusted pot. At his side a boy continually mixes a large vat of milk on high heat to keep the bottom from burning. Every day the tea man counts my group size and makes us “special chai” with more milk, spice, in larger cups. Today I am only one. It’s then that I realize the sharp pain in my sole is a piece of glass in my right foot. I also realize that the India/Nepal trip is over.

Six weeks earlier, fourteen of us walked this street in Delhi during orientation, brown water up to our waists at points. The first monsoon rain of the year came quickly after yoga at the Sivananda Centre in the evening. Banana peels, pink plastic chair cups, glass, spit and other garbage float on the flooding and so we pressed carefully, down into the dark water, shorts and pants bunched up in our fists. Rickshaws pedal through, stripped to their tanktops, past the kids splashes.

We really bond on the government night bus to Manali. Up and down roads. A man grabs the rails at the top of the bus and kicks another over a seat misunderstanding, behind three participants. The victim slows us down as his cries for a hospital distracts the driver who is keeping himself awake with spice tobacco. We get little sleep on the plastic head rests. Up and down like the grade III and IV rapids we conquer one morning, continuously hit with dark glacier water. From Mango Baba’s we watch the sun set over the Himalayas, listen to house music and eat cookies. Makin’ life.

At midnight we’ve already ascended fifteen hundred metres. The driver and I change a flat with our hands tucked into our sleeves and our ears in our shoulders, the tire needing four hands to remove from its rusted place. At sunrise we’re passing small tented communities, only pitched in the summer months for the trucks and cars taking the road from Manali to Leh. On the second highest road pass in the world, over fifty-five hundred metres, nausea finds us. Most bounce against the windows, doused with drowsy Gravol to settle our stomachs, driving over the snow capped peak with a wall of old and new Tibetan flags that define Ladakhi culture.

A slow bus takes us far off the beaten path in Ladakh, a restricted area close to the Pakistan line of control. We walk an hour from the main road, in a narrow valley, tall orange and brown walks tower over us. We’re visiting Domkhar Barma through HEALTH Inc., an organization started by a Canadian named Cynthia. Cynthia and HEALTH Inc. have done incredible work in Domkhar, as well as the many other villages she works with. She claims to not be a member anymore, which is consistent with the organization’s goal of starting and facilitating projects and then stepping back when the project seems sustainable by the village. She wants to empower villagers and integrate communities and village. The other goal is to bring the outside world to the youth of the village, to show the young students that they don’t need to abandon village life in order to gain world perspective.

We spend a week running a special program for the middle school with only twelve children. Part of the day is spent making movies about village life, games, and talents of the students. Participants work one on one with a student on a research paper about any topic of interest. We also stuff garbage into water bottles, the eventual insulation for a new dining room for the school, partially paid for with fundraising money. There are many great moments throughout the week. The female participants spend a few rounds of butter tea, discussing gender issues, similarities and differences in India and North America. We have a dance, playing both Western and Ladakhi music. The women of the village make us a special dinner at the end of the week, as they had been cooking for us all week in their homes, allowing us to press out momo dumplings and pick peas in their gardens. Village locals take us on a five day trek, up to Skorbachan Lake, over five thousand metres up. We eat incredible food in the tents, drink water from the glacier river, hike up through the beautiful Domkhar valley.

After a comfortable flight from Leh to Delhi we celebrate the first half of the trip with high tea at the Imperial Hotel, one of the best in the city. Smoked meats and vegetables, piled on small croissants and buns are brought to us on silverware towers with unlimited pastries, scones with marscapone cream. We dine on unlimited amounts in our nicest clothes. The girls wear salwar kameez over their hiking shoes in the atrium dining area, by the fountain.

By evening we’re at Old Delhi train station. A time mix up has us sitting on our bags for more than two hours, our nicest clothes turning black, dirt cakes onto the sweat on our necks. A group of Westerners can attract a lot of attention, especially with bored men in tank-tops in the absence of a television. We ride the train in second class non A/C. Locals without tickets sit at the foot of our beds through the night, reading newspapers, drinking chai– brought through the cabin at any hour, offered in a loud CHAI! CHAI! CHAI! nasal voice.

In Gorakhpur we wash ourselves in the sink, have a quick thali lunch and get a cramped bus to the Nepal border. From there, a night bus to Jamapling.

The group spends a few days understanding the realities of a Tibetan refugee camp and some rituals of Buddhist culture. Amazing food is served in the homestays, although sometimes enjoyed under large amounts of mayonnaise. We help paint the new youth centre, sponsor a meal for 150 at the elderly home, while integrating into the community.

When we reach Pokhara, lake side, everyone is in need of relaxation. Several nights are made at Old Blues Bar, the best in the city, where we meet other backpackers from all over the world. We make time in the day to enjoy some of the activities in the area. We bike partway around the lake on a mostly dirt road, at parts flooded to the top of the wheel, through small villages. We rent local canoes and paddle out to the middle of the lake, where the fun outlasts the sunscreen. We also do yoga at a beautiful studio overlooking the water at sunset.

Independent Travel Time starts in Kathmandu. We take a tour of Thamel and at night we visit a casino where food is free, enjoyed at the buffet table by the stage. Dancers in cheap tearaway pants watch Olympics tennis on the side wall more than the audience. ITT is enjoyed by all in different ways: paragliding in Pokhara, riding elephants in Chitwan, bungee jumping near the Tibet border, exploring some less ventured locations around Nepal, or returning to India to spend a few days in Pushkar.

Disorientation starts in Delhi. We go back to the Imperial Hotel, this time for dinner at Spice Route, often rated one of the best restaurants in India. The dining room took eight years to construct, broken up into nine sections, each part an important part of life, from birth to death. We feast on buttery duck curry with lychee, beef tenderloin, pan fried sole, buttons mushrooms with cashews. The next morning we leave for Agra, on the recently finished freeway. Although its a long day trip, the pay off is one of the 7 wonders of the world, the Taj Mahal. The last day of the trip we sit under the fans inside Gurdwara Bangla Sahib. Scripture is read from the Guru Granth Sahib as tabla echoes off the golden platform, three bearded men chant into microphones as hundreds of visitors bow on their knees. We roll out chapati in the kitchen before sitting on burlap with over one thousand others for a free lunch. By sunset the group size has diminished. First Ambika leaves. Then Allison. We chase after Delphine’s taxi, desperate to keep the trip going, down Main Bazaar Road, the same street I’m on now, waiting for chai, a little blood leaves my foot when I remove the glass.

The trip finishes a long summer for me and Norbu. But all great, sweaty things must come to an end. Thanks to Luca, Michelle, Miss Universe, Kylie, Tomi, Joey, Liat, Marsha, Tammy, Bootsy, Gaby, Sarah, Amanda, Liz, Uriel, Hayley, Delphine, Sam, C. Breeze, Biks, Allison, Neka and Hannah. One participant said it best: honestly, imagining the experience without any of the people I spent it with is a painful thought.

See you all on the road in the near future.