Vashisht, this colorful, honking mountain town, has been my home for a month. The town begins about a quarter mile down the road, and ends a quarter mile up. It is tiny. The culmination of Vashisht is at its highest point, and it is the Hindu temple where swarms of Indians go every day to be blessed by the priest, and have a streak of orange painted on their foreheads. The tiny, gold-gated temple is never not busy, and often you have to strategically maneuver through the crowds of screaming, tugging children, painted Indian women, serious-looking fathers with heavy black mustaches, mangy dogs, traffic-jammed rickshaws, horses, goats, and cows, in order to make your way onto the tiny foot trail that leads away past the madness, and into the blessed calm of the apple orchards above.
Yesterday I slipped through the throngs of people, rickshaws and animals, and quickly padded up the trail, a bag on my back filled with all the necessities. I climbed and climbed, the air growing cleaner and the sounds of nature taking over, and when I saw a crack in the low running wall, I stepped over the scattered stones, and into the labyrinth of apple trees that stretch away up the mountain. In five minutes I had found my spot. I laid out a sarong, and kicked off my shoes. I sat down with my palms on the ground and my knees tucked into my chest, the valley spread out before me. I took a deep breath. Then I laid back with arms crossed under my head, and stared up at the sky. Through the gnarled branches and fluttering leaves, it was perfectly blue. Later, the mists would come over the mountains, but for now, it was warm and clear.
My lunch consisted of a big slice of honey butter cake, a bag of almonds, and a few baby plums. I had plenty of water, and a good book to read. I never thought I would enjoy Huck Finn so much. I spent the entire afternoon in that spot, reading my book, watching the inchworms, listening to the birds calling to each other, and staring at the sparkling river in the distance. I’ve been trying to pay more attention to nature lately, its sounds and smells and sights. I find that I am infinitely refreshed when I return from an afternoon in the orchards, and can once again face the throngs with mild grace. They don’t bother me so much. The horns are just horns, and the people who stare are just curious. C’est la vie.
When I finally did decide to come down, I took my time. I sat up and stretched and then laid back down. I stayed there for a long time, rolling onto my side to inspect the tiny spider that had roped himself to the sarong and was now pulling himself in. A huge, squawking crow landed in a tree behind me, and when I turned my head, he shrieked again, lifting into the air. He settled in the branches of another tree and kept a careful eye on me for awhile. I took about a million pictures of the sunlight streaming through the branches, and then a bunch more of a patch of wild clover cascading over the hill. I attempted to capture the charming essence of a single strand of yellow grass caught in my Chacko, but I didn’t get it. I settled for direct shot of the shoes perched happily in the grass, next to a few of my things.
An hour or so after I decided to head back to town, I finally got up. I made my way through groves of apple trees, keeping my feet to the winding dirt tracks. Below me on the hillside, I saw two Indian women lounging under an apple tree. Their heads were wrapped in colorful scarves, and their straw baskets lay at their sides. They had taken a break from heaving grass up and down the mountainside, and were enjoying the peace and solitude of the orchards, like me. I mentally applauded them for taking a break. Usually, I see those women working from dawn ‘til dusk. They lounged under a tree several terraces below, beside a big rock wall that stretched away up to the sky. I saw an brown iguana on the wall, warming himself in the late afternoon sunlight. He was bobbing his head up and down in the classic reptilian challenge. I didn’t see his opponent.
Back in town, as I passed the hot springs where the men and children bathed in the open, the smell of sulfur filled the humid air. Squatting women beat colorful laundry under the spewing spouts, turning it over again and again, pounding it with sticks and then rinsing it clean. The suds rolled away on the stream of water, caught the lip of the drain and wavered for a moment, and then dropped in, never to be seen again. Barefoot saddhus in orange robes moved up the street on walking sticks, their arms open, their eyes bright, though whether this joyful sheen came from drugs or enlightenment, I doubt I’ll ever know. Boys stood in shop doorways, gesturing to their wares and calling out, “Come, Madame! Have a look at our shawls!!” The vendor I paid five rupees to for a corn on the cob bobbled his head at me in that curious Indian manner, a gesture which means anything from thank you, to no problem, to whatever you say! Horses plodded amiably up the road, sometimes weighed down by pack sacks, sometimes roaming free. Cows lounged directly in the road, their massive sides heaving, their tails flicking. And as the sun set over the mountains, and the Beas river rushed by at the bottom of the valley, pale blue and unrestrained, I sighed and smiled, my relationship to Vashisht still uncertain. When the cars honk from morning ‘til night, and the people stare without reservation, I sometimes have the urge to strangle the whole place. But when I’ve had a long walk through the valley, my room is warm, and the sound of a flute floats up to my ears as I wash before dinner, I know that this place has wormed its way into my heart.