The weather has arrived, and it has been dreadful.

Cold fronts blowing down from Tibet have kept Dharchula under a cloud of gray and steady rains since my return. It’s been the worst winter seen in 50-odd years according to those who have lived here that long; the only saving grace that the snow-lined ridges take on a mystical hue beneath the silver sky. It’s not quite enough to turn a man into a ascetic, though. The constancy of overpopulation, the march of development turning our backyard into a construction zone, and overhead passage of helicopters patrolling for Maoists on the Nepal side of the Kali River, swollen with sediment and rainwater, just make it hard for a man to lose himself.

Fortunately, the sun has deigned to visit us the past couple of days, and in the muddy streets there’s a sense that spring may be on its way. India’s northern plains line-up longitudinally with Mexico, more or less, and despite the altitude of the Himalayas pressing down upon Kali River, we expect to see sunny days ahead.

I wish I could say the same for the neighborhood across the valley in Nepal, for while the weather may improve, it’s going to be a stormy season for those remote villages. In case you missed the news, the Himalayan Kingdom of Nepal has disbanded the democratically-elected government, and the king has clamped down on press freedoms and other facets of open society. In short, the civil unrest that has afflicted Nepal for the past decade shows no sign of waning. I’ll save the global analysis for real South Asia pundits, but there’s plenty of blame to go around. To protest the royal power play, the Maoists have responded by choking supply lines leading from the cities to the villages, and at gun-point enforced a day-long market strike across the way. This forced Nepalis needing groceries and other goods to make increased use of the already busy footbridge that runs from Darchula, Nepal, to it’s sister city, our home Dharchula, India. Otherwise, the military presence on the Indian side of the border has kept things relatively quiet here.

The Maoists may be a godless bunch, but while the majority of Nepalis are not altogether sympathetic to the king, they remain nonetheless staunch Hindus. And since it’s wedding season again (guided by astrological concerns, wedding season has been nearly constant since our return to India) they’ve found an excuse to party despite the ongoing conflict. This commendable resilience could even serve as a reminder for brokenhearted American liberals still ruing last November that regardless of the political scene, life does go on

The amalgamation of Hinduism and mountain animism practiced by local people has provided a near-constant spectacle of drumming, dancing and fireworks. Thus, I found myself just a few nights ago decked out in a long wool coat, sword in my hand, a turban-like “shilay” wrapped tight around my dome dancing in the street. My friend Dinesh Vyas, a Rang man from Nepal, had made me something of the guest of honor at his wedding. Wearing the traditional costume, feeling every bit as self-conscious as a schoolgirl at junior prom, I found succor in a few pegs of rum as I paraded through the market, trailing a long line of similarly attired gentlemen.

We represented the groom’s side of the ceremony, and an hour after sundown arrived at the bride’s home suitably soused and ready to do battle, if necessary, to take her away. Actually, that wouldn’t be necessary, as the wedding was not only arranged but marked a love marriage. The sublimated violence represented by the sword and acted out in the dancing was a mere nod to ancient tradition. Sorting through the nuances of Hindu rites of passage has been no easier than obtaining expertise on the political scene in Nepal. Suffice it to say, however, that if you’ve found your so-called love match all it takes is a willingness to destroy one’s own reputation and a couple hundred rupees – roughly five dollars – to get married. Thereafter, it should take about two years for your parents and the rest of the community to ascent to this coupling, if you’re lucky, bringing down their stamp of approval with a big wedding shebang, ideal for erasing any lingering ill will.

Or so I was given to understand in a moonshine-fueled conversation that preceded our early departure from the party. C and I only knew too well from previous experience that as the night progressed, the festivities would wind up a raucous testosterone-heavy dance party. The bride and her sisters, in turn, would be kept under lock and key until the groomsmen departed for Nepal the following day. You might say that Indians really know how to put the pickle back into pickle parties.

Having crossed swords, so to speak, earlier in the evening, I preferred to stay out of trouble. After all, I’ve got travel plans: I need my integrity and health intact if I’m going to hit the road again.


The end of a week in Delhi, and I'm ready for the not-so-fresh mountain air of Dharchula. Still, have managed to entertain myself pretty royally in the week since Christina departed. Checked into the old school Central Court Hotel after a few days at the Baldauf House of Mirth (where my friends Scott and Kashmira live; he's bureau chief for the Christian Science Monitor). The CCH is a throw-back place off the happening center of New Delhi, Connaught Place. A little run-down, but a pleasant surprise to get what I paid for, for a change. I had a clean room and private bathroom down the hall. The walls were not-quite-sparkling white, but aside from the bus horns in the early morning dawn the nights were peaceful.

At Scott and Kash's joint, I got to share my room with their tailor; not to rat my friends out, but their servant situation is a bit over the top. There's also Scott's driver (and I don't blame him for not wanting to take to the mad Delhi roads), a part-time cook, a nanny and a maid. It's the sort of thing one could get used to, perhaps. It's not bad having someone prepare breakfast and sew curtains, after all, but there are only four Baldaufs, including two beautiful little girls, so the idea that they need five pairs of helping hands... well, you do the math.

Of course, I should be grateful, and I am; Scott shared his stash of Stella Artois, and despite having to deal with the shards of fabric left behind by the tailor, who apparently sees cleaning up after himself a lowly, unworthy task, everybody helped me feel welcome. It's just a different life is all.

I managed to partake in some new experiences in New Delhi, as well. Friends from publishing took me out for lunch at a little joint down south of downtown, where we dined on Kerala-style curried beef -- you got that right. More likely buffalo than cow, but not the sort of thing typically advertised and more than likely to get the proprietor arrested in this Hindu milieu. Unfortunately, the consistency was just a step above spicy shoeleather, but the illicit thrill was (clearly) worth writing home about.

I further expanded my cultural horizons by heading for a performance of Sufi quaali music outside the tomb of Saint Nizamuddin yesterday evening; a group of 10 Muslim men collected money, sitting on the floor before a crowd of about 400 hundred, banging out rhythms on a two-headed drum and singing mystical chants. Very, very cool.

Tonite, am off to the hills for a spell. Did I mention I'm dreading the trip? It starts with an overnight train run, and concludes with 10 hours cramped in a shared jeep chasing mountain curves over valleys running 2,000 feet or more. If I can control my terror, car sickness and bladder, all that will remain is retaining sanity while relentless Bollywood showtunes worm their way into the deepest recesses of my grey matter.

Hopefully, the beauty of the landscape will provide some respite -- word has it, there's even some snow for a change in them thar hills.