From Page 1 Deora is our home for the night. It’s also the home of Jogender and Jagdish.
My bedroom is on the upper storey of a typical village dwelling. It’s a white house with shuttered windows and door frame picked out in scarlet with a staircase at the front. It is a neat fit between authenticity and comfort. The floor is made from packed mud mixed with straw, there’s a bare 25-watt globe and the bed is a mattress on a charpoy, a web of string over a wooden frame. In a concession to foreign eccentricities, there’s an outhouse with a sit-down toilet and a shower next door.
At 3am, I am drowsily awake and needing the toilet but all I can think of is a story Jogender told me as we strolled around the village. While howling dogs have tracked my progress for much of the day, this evening there is not so much as a whimper. It’s the leopards, Jogender told me. Dogs are locked inside at night because leopards will sit on the roofs of houses, wait until a dog comes out and pounce.
Will a leopard appreciate the difference between a dog and a timorous foreigner with a full bladder? It is a nervy thought but eventually I decide it would make an interesting epitaph and bolt for the outhouse. Next morning, Jogender tells me that every year a handful of villagers fall prey to leopards.
In the next village along our line of march the men are warming up for a Twenty20 cricket match with a visiting team from Deora. Today is a relaxed walk, and we wait while Jagdish races down to bowl a few overs. While religion, politics and caste are the fault lines in Indian society, cricket is a unifying force, the opium of its masses.
As we leave the village we spot a teenager in a white school shirt sprinting away from us through the trees. My boy,’’ says Jagdish, with a nod in his direction. He’s wagged school so he can watch the match and his father grins in appreciation. All that day Jagdish keeps up to date with the cricket game over his mobile phone. Despite a run rate of more than six an over, Deora loses.
Near a village we wait beside a forest trail while Jagdish goes off to buy some batteries. Young women with shaggy mounds of grass piled on their heads file past. They’re on the return journey from market to their village, where the grass will be used for cattle feed. They have walked for more than two hours with 30kg of grass on their heads, and there’s another hour to go.
Over lunch on the grassy banks of a stream, a young boy sidles past and Jagdish can’t resist asking if he has eaten lunch. No, he’s on the way home from school and while there’s a school meal if he wants it, the cook is a harijan, a member of India’s vast casteless sea. Whatever the cook has made would be ritually polluted, and the boy is a kshatriya, a member of the warrior caste.
On the fourth day of the walk, Jogender wakes me before sunrise with tea and we make a panting climb from the village where we’ve spent the night at 2200m, up another 200m. It’s the highest point around. Sixty kilometres to the north and stretching for more than 250km across the horizon, the peaks of the Himalayas run like a plot of the Dow Jones industrial average in turbulence.
After a breakfast of parathas and honey, we walk down through a cool cedar forest, following a stream for an hour. Deep in the forest is the ancient temple complex at Jageshwar, where a priest dabs my forehead with vermilion powder and rice, and sprinkles flower petals in my hair. A car is waiting to take us back to Kalmatia Sangam but Jagdish leaves us halfway. He’s walking home to Deora, across the hills.
We say our goodbyes and, until a bend in the road takes us out of earshot, I can hear him clearly above the noise of the engine and the rush of the wind, talking into his mobile phone. Michael Gebicki was a guest of Natural Focus Safaris and India Tourism.
For bookings and information on the Kumaon Village Walk, contact Natural Focus Safaris, (03) 9249 3777 or 1300 363 302; www.naturalfocussafaris.com.