Altitude

Dharamkot – 19th May 2013

There is something about altitude that confers detachment, a literal elevation. Somehow one rises above the concerns of everyday life, of the preoccupations of others. Nearly all the world’s great cities are at sea level, with a few notable exceptions. Often a river runs through them. And in order to escape the mental confines of urban life, it is necessary to take more of a bird’s eye view – to look down upon the lives of millions and see them as intricate and incomprehensible as a swarm of ants. Each one has a part to play, a role somehow, and navigates his or her way through the labyrinth of the urban area, up and down elevators, escalators, along transport networks and in and out of buildings. Their mental map is unconscious – they find their way largely unthinkingly, with occasional halts for orientation, checking maps, peering round themselves for signs or landmarks.

I was once in the main arrivals hall of Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris at a time when the arrival of several flights delayed by bad weather coincided with a long-standing French tradition, a strike of some transport workers. The end result was that thousands of passengers filled the hall, thereby obscuring the signs which would have directed them to the assorted outlets and offshoots that they needed. It was a perfect storm in terms of the creation of a swarm, directionless apart from a few yellow-jacketed staff who shouted incomprehensible commands in French. The hall had been designed with an artist’s impression in mind – an elegant interior space, occupied by a few ethnically diverse travellers. But the vagaries of modern air travel make such places an ordeal to be undergone, rather than an elegant intercontinental experience. Form in this case had triumphed over function, and the staff were reduced to hastily erecting whiteboards upon which were scrawled in marker pen the directions for other terminals, other destinations.

One of the things I enjoy about travel is the sense of being completely, utterly lost. If I’m in a place where I can’t read any of the street signs, where all the usual semiotic devices by which we orient ourselves are wholly absent, then at last I really feel that I’ve arrived – although where exactly is unsure. There’s a joy in being lost, off the map, and in simply following your instincts. I remember crossing from Laos into Thailand, and arriving in a place where every single sign was in Thai, which I was unable to read. Even trying to check in to a hotel was complex – the first English lettering I saw was over the foyer of a large building saying “Hotel Krananachangpong” or something. But at reception all the forms to check in were in Thai. Together with the assistance of the clerk I more or less filled them out accurately, with some artistic variation: Mr United Kingdom, arrival date April 1973, place of birth Pakse in Laos. It reminded me of entering Cambodia where the bus driver hastily filled out everybody’s passport details, in my case misreading mine and using my two middle names as forename and surname. Upon leaving Cambodia the Immigration officer leafed through his log, went back and rechecked my passport, looked back at his log, gave a sigh and stamped me out of the country under a different name to the one which I had arrived under. Technically I suppose I am still there.

Altitude. McLeod Ganj lies at around 6,500 feet – 1770m or thereabouts (numbers don’t interest me). Not high – Leh is over twice that – but high enough. Dharamkot is a couple of kilometres up the hill, so maybe 7,000 feet and a bit. But there’s something about the elevation; it’s not as if you suffer from altitude sickness, although a slight shortage of breath is often initially experienced – usually because everywhere seems to be uphill – and yet there’s a certain levity to things, a lightness of being, in effect. It’s the kind of place where former preoccupations and worries appear to be reduced by distance, and made manageable. Things are seen more in perspective. We are pulled this way and that in life, by a thousand and one impulses, guided by impetus, often unaware of why we feel the way we do, why we act in a certain way. Elevation gives us a different perspective; we can examine our trajectories through life and analyse the exact relationship of cause and effect: why do I think what I do. What are the associations hardwired into my brain that make me feel the way that I feel about something? How can the moo of a Himalayan cow remind me of a hill farm in Wales, which leads me to some kind of reminiscence about childhood, which makes me wonder where I live now and its effect upon my psyche. “Where are you going? Everything is already here.” So said Ted Hughes in his poem You Drive in a Circle. We are all driving in circles, all the time. Do any of us really know where we are going? Desire pulls us in one direction, notions of what we ought to do in another, and we swing from one extreme to another.

People pin their happiness on the most tenuous of associations. Look back to the last time you felt really happy. Maybe it was something intangible – just a wonderful warm feeling of contentment. Maybe it was a time in childhood when you woke up and the room was full of sunlight and there was birdsong outside and the summer holidays had just begun and would go on forever and ever, and all the magical possibilities of the adventures you’d have stretched out before you. And that feeling stays with you – you remember it and try to recapture it. But perhaps it was an illusion: you felt content because you didn’t have to do something you didn’t want. Your lover became progressively more disillusioned, until one day you sat together at breakfast in a frosty silence and couldn’t even bring yourselves to look at each other. Your magical childhood holiday lasted a few days and then some kind of routine set in, and after a while you pronounced the fatal words: “I’m bored”. Is it all an illusion?

People pin their happiness on others. “If only I could be with him or her,” they think to themselves. Him or her may be a philanderer, feckless, callously indifferent, but in the eyes of the beloved they can do no wrong. Worse, perhaps they can be changed, made to conform to the contours of the mental image assigned them. Searching for happiness by wishing for something that might happen? That way lies disappointment for sure. And the more you try to hang on to the illusion, the more it will slip through your fingers. If you love somebody, let them go. “Everyone has to leave the things they love,” as the Buddhists say.

Looking down on Upper Dharamkot you get a bird’s eye view of village life. A girl sweeps the courtyard with a broom made of twigs. A man leads an unwilling goat into a stall. A black dog, curled up contentedly on the path, suddenly sits up, bristling with attention. It trots along the path and then across the open field, and stands in front of a tree, head cocked to one side quizzically. Then it barks once, twice, and starts scratching the ground. Its bark is high-pitched, outraged. A rustle of foliage in the tree, and a glimpse of beige fur. It is a monkey, which is picking the fruit in quick, deft gestures, one a second, stuffing berries into its mouth. The dog seems hysterical at its presence, and its owner begins whistling, calling it back. Three horses stand beneath a nearby tree, swishing their tails in synchronisation. A woman bent double under the weight of a huge bundle of foliage trudges over to them and tips a basket of leaves onto the ground before them. They whinny in pleasure, or perhaps gratitude. The wind sighs through the outstretched arms of the trees above me, and a lone motorbike thunks along the road in the background, then off up the hill. Evening in the Himalayan foothills.

At 7am I emerge onto the balcony blinking in the sunlight. The heat is already intense. In the UK we have an expression, Indian Summer, to describe a late seasonal warmth in the weather – a last burst of summer before the onset of autumn. Well you should see the real thing. The country bakes. The sun is like a hammer by 9 o’clock in the morning. I walk to the Himalayan tea stall for the first masala chai of the day. Small kids are getting into a minibus, heading off to school – they wear bright yellow shirts and chequered trousers like Rupert Bear. I sit with an Italian in companionable silence, watching the morning traffic past the main junction in Dharamkot – a couple of motorbikes (including one called Vegemite Falafel, written in stylised Hindi script, and ridden by an Australian and his Israeli girlfriend), three tourists on horses, a rickshaw. The cow with the injured leg hobbles over and loiters by the fruit and veg stall. Then a slow saunter to Cool Talk Corner Cafe for coffee. Everybody who comes in is greeted. I’ve been in Dharamkot just over a week and it feels like a community – we all know each other. Walking up the hill from McLeod yesterday everybody I passed smiled at me, whether they were westerner, Tibetan, Indian. It’s self-affirming somehow – no hurrying past, looking away, ignoring someone’s greeting like in London. Here people take the time to acknowledge each other. When you find a place where you feel so at home, you don’t want to leave. But I have to. It’s a fear of inertia, of lethargy or laziness that I’m fighting against. I remember a summer in London when I spent much of the day lying on the sofa watching planes crossing the sky, unable to muster the energy to even go outside. I’ve got three-and-a-half weeks left in India, and while it would be easy to spend the rest of the time sitting in Dharamkot, I am moving on: Jammu, Srinagar, Leh. I want to see snow again on the mountains, feel the chill of evening, see the poplar trees climbing the bare hillsides and look out at the deep ultramarine blue of a high altitude sky. I’m going to Ladakh.

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