23 February 2007

Cows and Donkeys and Dogs

My current hotel in Manali, the Mayflower, is situated in an apple orchard with views of a pine forest and, of course, the looming, snowy Himalaya. It’s a secluded, serene part of town, but just a short walk to the Mall, Manali’s frenetic main street. It’s also a quick jaunt to several thousands-of-years-old temples.

On my daily walks to town and one of the temples I pass a huge garbage dumpster that is a major attraction for a herd of cows, donkeys and dogs. The dogs and some of the smaller cows and donkeys dive right into the dumpster. The rest of the animals poke their heads in and scrounge around the ground for scraps of something edible. Occasionally, I hear vicious growling and barking from an aggressive dog backing down a cow or donkey or another dog.

I carry biscuits with me everywhere I go to feed the animals. I save my leftovers for them (most Indian single servings could feed a family of four). For the dogs and donkeys I toss the cookies on the ground. The cows I feed right out of my hand. Cows, in general, are gentle, shy creatures. They gingerly accept the biscuits from me and patiently wait to see if another will be forthcoming.

There’s one cow, though, pure beige, who must have learned some tricks from the alpha dog in their pack. This cow scarfed the cracker out of my hand, licking me up to my elbow and then nuzzled its big wet nose right into my chest for more. It pushed me, forcing me to backpedal. It stepped on my left foot, totally violating my boundaries. I was afraid it was going to jump up on me, like a rammy terrier only much taller and wider. Then it (she? Are all cows female?) followed me half-way back to my hotel, actually running to keep up with me.

I watch the alpha dogs steal the biscuits I try to toss to the emaciated, shy runts. “The meek do not inherit the earth,” I tell one dog, so skinny it hurts me to look at her, as she defers to the aggressive, plumper dogs who steal her food. I try to get close to her but she runs off into the distance, watching me with deep suspicion and fear. A tiny puppy in the pack has already learned the rules of survival. He challenges the larger dogs to get his share of the biscuits.

Sometimes a small crowd of amused locals forms when I’m feeding my adopted pets. An old man stops to talk to me. He tells me that the cows all belonged to herders, but when the cows become ill, the herders just shoo them out onto the streets. My favorite cow has a basketball-sized tumor on her right side.

The old man tells me that 25 years ago there was exactly one car in Manali. He says this as we stand to the side of an enormous traffic jam, the blare of beeping unbearable. The roads in Manali are currently designed to accommodate that one car from 25 years ago, so the ubiquitous Scorpios (jeeps), vans, Tatas, small cars, auto rickshaws and motorcycles swerve around town, wreaking havoc.

When I thank the man in Hindi ("Danyavaad") for our chat, he asks if I speak Hindi. I’m thinking, are you kidding? How many foreigners do you know who speak Hindi? I don’t even speak Spanish, a language that would be more sensible (and feasible) for me to learn. He offers to teach me Hindi if I can commit to two weeks of daily lessons.

I drink the water straight out of the tap most places I visit these days. I started my trip rigorously drinking only bottled water, even brushing my teeth with it. But that quickly grew tiresome. I’m traveling light, lugging litres of water around weighs me down, like an anchor.

Granted, I don’t tour Calcutta or Bombay or Agra or any other place the typical image of India is derived from. I’m in the Himalaya and when I gaze at these magnificent mountains (which I do all day) I forget to worry about water filtration systems. I start to believe I’m in Shangri-la, where everything is perfect. And safe.

The toilets are also not nearly as awful as you might expect. Either that or I’m simply acclimated. Except for one night at the hotel in Hell (Siliguri), I’ve had western toilets in every place I’ve stayed. Even the high ski camp in Sethan (above Manali) offered fully furbished western loos. The toilet in Hell was a squat toilet, but it still flushed.

Restaurant and dhaba toilets are a different story. I’m not going to write about them; no one needs to read that. I hold my breath and thank God it’s always pitch black inside those stalls.

Toilet paper is very hard to come buy, as are paper napkins and plastic bags. When I buy something here (deodorant, hair conditioner, cookies), my package is handed to me wrapped in newspaper.

I gave my iPod to a 19-year-old charmer, Arif Khan, in Kashmir. His dad co-owns the ski shop (Kashmir Alpine) that arranged my paradisiacal ski experience there in Gulmarg. Arif is one of India’s top downhill skiers. He smokes about 100 cigarettes a day. He velcroed himself to me for my entire stay there because he loves eating chocolate and speaking English—two of my favorite pastimes as well. And he wanted my iPod.

I would have preferred to part with a kidney or lung, but I grudgingly gave Arif my cherished iPod, fully loaded with every song I love and a dozen guided meditations, because not giving it to him as he begged would have made me the most selfish person in the world. This was also my first attempt to let go of my attachment to externals, and look for peace and happiness within.

A month later, I own a “Sony” MP3 player that I bought from a shack-store along the Mall in Manali. Suffice it to say my cheap little knock-off will not strike a chord of terror in Apple. But in some ways my new music machine is more appropriate for India. I can only figure out about one-third of its functions and it seemingly operates only when it feels like it.

Tenzing, a guy in the Internet café where I do all my work, loaded it up with his favorite songs, including the complete works of Bread. Bread. I loved Bread when I was 14, which was back in the '70s.

Tenzing is 23 years old. I can’t imagine how such a band even made it onto his radar. I’m considering enlisting the old man with whom I discussed the cow situation to teach me Hindi just so I can ask Tenzing: Why Bread?

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mardi louisell said...

Thanks for the Loo information - always wondered. I love the cow with the tumor too. My sister's dog has a tumor the same size and it makes me nervous to look at it. My friend's Judi and Marty love the site.

Andrew Rasanen said...

I tell everyone you will have a book when this trip is done and you collate your essays with photos. I remember seeing Forest of Bliss, Robert Gardner's beautiful, dialogueless film about Varanasi. There was a scene on a ghat with a dog so emaciated it could barely walk on the steps, it made you want to cry to see it, but no one even glanced in its direction. Everyone on the ghat just ignored the dying dog, everyone but the objective lens of the filmmaker.