Communi-tea: Gap Year Week 39

When the last group of students left, we sat and read the reflections we had them write in the last hours, lazy on the grass, waiting for lunch. “I will tell the story of my vacation,” one began; we all laughed at that—this was meant to be a nature camp, not a holiday. But this vacation spoke to the separation of the pasture from the habitations even a hundred meters below. How far away this must have felt for these students, living their lives in the towns: after all, how far away this felt for us. “And now my vacation has ended,” the painstakingly inscribed page concluded.

I was uncertain on the gravel path descending, weighed down with my perennially overstuffed backpack. But it wasn’t, I knew, just that. At the bottom lay Kibber, and only a few days beyond that the long drive and the mountains disappearing into the rearview. From Chomaling I could hear the cries of the cricket match had sprung up as soon as the last students had left. Cricket is a hazardous affair anywhere, but especially so in the Himalayas. The pitch, such that it existed, was bounded with two half-meter deep ditches to trip over when fielding and ringed by tents to disrupt the path of balls; the wickets were three twigs liable to frequent collapse; and on top of it all the oxygen levels meant that even fifty meters’ of running brought you, panting, to your knees. I hadn’t yet succeeded in successfully batting once, but I liked laughing at the game, at the incongruity of its remoteness and the enthusiasm everyone played it with. I hadn’t wanted to leave the pasture. I didn’t even want to think about the other departures ahead. And so I hesitated on the slope too often, pausing on the rocks just too long enough to begin slipping, flailing, recovering my balance in the nick of time.

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Back in the village we came down to a party. The next morning many of the NCF staff were heading back to Delhi and the Kibber women were organizing a goodbye celebration in the basecamp house. After weeks in the pasture the noise and people bewildered; I wandered the small space disoriented.

Each room had been transformed: the kitchen dense with pressure cookers, whistling meat and rice; the washroom co-opted for further cooking, glowing with gas stoves and glittering towers of steamers. In the bedrooms crowds of mostly women crammed against the walls and beds making momos. Loud Spitian conversation fuelled a hyper-efficient assembly line: roll dough, pinch edges, spoon filling, the movements thoughtless in lifelong practice, flurries of thumb and forefinger, and the finished product in neat origami folds, placed in a growing spiral on the plate, without even looking. In the meeting room, around the alcohol, the most people had congregated; every minute the space somehow expanded as the door opened to let in one, two, three more people in, sitting on the edges, talking over each other in waves of noise.

From somewhere an empty steel gasoline can emerged and with the heel of a hand beating on it a rhythm began; someone else began singing, a low slurred chant. People were pulled up, one by one, and hands grasped into circles. A child wandered on the edges, waving a tiny fist in time with the beat. Half the village, or maybe more, seemed to be in the room by now. I recognized hardly anyone; I could understand none of the songs and maybe a quarter of the conversation; anything I said inevitably, in my broken Hindi, had to be repeated five times; but I laughed, and we danced amid laughter, feet swinging in shared rhythm, dodging the plates of momos and chutney, swirling round and round. The night rippled past us in warm haze.

Later someone told me I should come in the winter to Spiti. “There’s a party nearly every night. You can’t really go outside, after all.”

***

In the morning Deepshikha and I hitched a ride to Kaza. In my last few days, I had been asked to take a few photographs of tourism in the region for an upcoming proposal. As we walked along the road, waiting for a car to pass by, I noticed things I hadn’t before. Beneath the picturesque green spread of Chicham the rock cliff dripping plastic. The streams broadening into a mouth teethed with litter. Black barrels congealing tar, relics of road construction, unlikely to ever be removed.

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Later the road engineer who picked us up without a second glance told us the route had opened to Chandra Tal, a high-altitude lake. “Are you tourists here? It’s a good place to visit. Just in time for the season,” he said. He was going down to Kaza to buy meat and alcohol for a party that night for the machine operators. In the coming weeks the crowds from Delhi would flood in and test their work in droves. Every year tourists to Spiti exceed several times over the region’s 33,000-strong population. Ala Three Idiots, Bollywood has come here too in recent years, though without similar breakout success as yet.

The engineer dropped us off in the new part of Kaza, where every street pole cramped with signs advertising homestays. We had errands to run—peanut butter resupplies (me), medical checkups (Deepshikha), and walking across town I was surprised to be stopped several times. People come from Kibber for groceries, or students who had attended the camps, or teachers who had accompanied them, waved to us, pausing for a few minutes of conversation by the roadside. “Come, drink tea,” they urged. Mindful of our return bus, we refused, but the novelty of the idea you could, literally, bump into someone you knew thrilled me. Exuberant, several times I smiled in greeting at people who returned only confused glances.

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As the bus conductor in the evening insisted on showing Deepshikha every photo he’d taken in the last year, I realized this was probably the longest time I’d stayed somewhere with a population this small. I had spent my life drifting through the vast anonymity of cities. I wasn’t used to seeing the same people twice outside school or the apartment and was even less used to being recognized by them. Outside home, work, the institutions paid membership to, I accepted you were faceless.

But up here there was nothing else. Up here six months of the year the snow walled in the houses and vegetables had to be kept next to the kettle just to defrost enough to cook; up here reliable Internet was six hours of driving away; up here going further beyond meant reaching the last roads in India, and then China. Up here, this was the final outpost of civilization; what choice did you have but huddle together in face of the ageless landscape? Community was forged in that crucible. You could pray to the mountains, but they would not answer: only other people would.

When the bus ejected us at Kibber and we walked to base camp, we weren’t alone: the house had a new visitor, Chayant, a friend of NCF’s, come to visit from a camera trapping project in Shimla. We leaned against the walls of the house and introduced ourselves.

“Chai?” Lamaji asked curtly, and a few minutes later pressed cups into our hands without comment. We moved to the meeting room—devoid of any signs of the evening before save a few scattered crumbs—and sipped the hot drinks. Chayant showed us pictures of his sightings—snakes, frogs, damp gleaming animals foreign to these desert highlands. I mentioned my surprise at being invited for tea in Kaza, recognizing so many people. Kullu shrugged. “That’s Spiti.”

We talked as the sunlight melted away, about wildlife, conservation, the many accumulated decades of work here, how the place was changing, how it was not, where we were from, what brought us here, how you kept believing. At one point Lamaji came in. “Dinner,” he said, and walked away; we looked at each other in surprise and then out the window at the black village. I wondered at how quickly the time had slid away. How far everything else had seemed but the next remark, the next expression, our voices, our faces, our bodies, the worlds and ideas we were spinning between us.

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